Its about 10:30am and we’re leaving a tiny hamlet when I catch sight of the name – ‘Oluklu’. I absentmindedly check the map mounted on my handlebar bag. The village is just one street, so I’m not expecting to see it on our 1:800 000 scale map, but my heart jumps just a tiny bit – I can see the road, but not on the D665 which we should have been following. Last night’s continual climbing after Sogut, muddy hunt for a free camp and the incident with the pack of five wild dogs circling our tent in the morning could have all been avoided.
Three days earlier we were cycling through central Istanbul, early on a holiday Monday. With little traffic on the road we made good time to the ferry port behind Sultanahmet and were soon lunching in Yalova next to a vibrant fruit and vegetable markets staffed by women with colourful headscarves selling prime specimens of common fruit and vegetables plus varieties of produce I couldn’t name. After a short stint on a dusty road-works-in-progress hill, we dropped down to the valley floor, following an intensively used agricultural belt next to Lake Iznik. Every inch of space beneath olive trees was used to grow crops and heavily laden fruit trees were squeezed in every few metres. We camped in a quiet spot on the shore, watching a farmer drive his tractor into the lake to wash it, then seeing another driver follow suit with his car and dangle his feet in the lake water from the driver’s seat.
We have an early morning swim in the lake before cycling into Iznik which was once the edge of the Mongolian empire. I try hard to be impressed by a tiny bit of Mongolian wall (or gate maybe) that is equal parts overgrown and fallen down. Our afternoon is dominated by hill climbing, with a lunch break under olive trees, halfway up one of the longer stretches. We find a free camping spot with a view to the valley behind it. A beautiful spot except for the aggressive ants which we woke to find crawling around us after they had eaten their way through our tent mesh in the night.
We cycled under an overcast sky and just before midday rain started to fall. At that moment we were fortunately sitting in a teahouse in Bilecik, so wisely chose to extend our stay until it abated. Both wearing our rain jackets and feeling a little cold in sandals for the first time in months we ate lunch in an abandoned park and then (with permission from the road marshal) took a road closed to traffic towards Sogut under ever darkening skies. We were soon up high but continued climbing on a rough road as the rain started to fall again. Lots of trucks added to the unpleasantness and we stopped in a bus shelter to warm up a bit before pushing our bicycles across the road to talk to a vegetable seller with an empty stall. He fed us a tiny watermelon and a round cucumber both cut straight from a roadside garden before sending us off with a bunch of grapes.
The landscape turns more desolate and we think we’ve probably climbed pretty high – the ground cover reminds us of the desert road in New Zealand, just low lying vegetation on a barren dirt landscape. We wave at some soldiers at the outskirts of Sogut and I wonder if we should be heading in to look for a hotel. Preoccupied, I forget to double check the map.
We climb up further and start searching for a place to put the tent. We both pull our bikes off the road so we can follow a likely path and wheel them directly into thick gluey mud which locks the wheels against the mudguards and sprays grit through our chains. I stay behind to clean enough mud off the wheels to allow them to spin freely. Justin returns reporting that the area will be no good as there are animals ‘like the ones in France’ everywhere. The ground is covered with fist sized holes each emitting a high pitched whine – we think they’re probably marmots.
We continue on expecting the next town or village to be only a few kilometres away but it fails to appear. The rain has stopped but low clouds are gathering and its feeling as chilly as our first few weeks of cycling in Spain. Just off the road we see a dip down to a line of trees and a little bit of grass with only a few animal holes. We spot a shepherd on the other side of the tree line and ask if it will be okay to camp. We think he says no, but with darkness falling we decide we’re not moving any further, push bikes down the hill and settle in as a thick fog obscures the road.
We are woken in the middle of the night as a car pulls off the road for the length of a techno track – we hear the sound of slamming doors as they leave as quickly as they came, but the noise has attracted dogs which discover our tent and bark very loudly beside this strange and unexpected object. We both sit quietly in the darkness not sure of the size or intentions of the dogs.
In the morning we awake to the noise of a pack of dogs barking around our tent again. Justin unzips the door and we see five huge sheep dogs with barbed metal collars on. One lifts its leg up to my bike and urinates over a plastic bag which was strapped to the back of it. We count to three and make a huge noise to scare them off but they only retreat a short distance, returning to check us out after circles of the fields below us. Justin runs at the dogs shouting and waving his arms but again they only retreat a small distance before circling closer and closer to us. Unlike most of the dogs we’ve encountered to date they don’t seem particularly scared of us, so we pack up quickly and head on.
In the first village we come to we stop at a cattle trough to give the bicycles a good clean. An elderly man comes out to watch us for a bit and we realise that we’re working in his driveway. A little later a women passes carrying a barrowful of empty water bottles. We wave and say ‘Merhaba’ and she comes over to me, presenting a handful of tomatoes. We’re almost finished our chores when another man comes to say hello and invites us to visit his house up the road. I go to the road to see where he is pointing and see the tomato-gifting woman – his wife. We wheel our bicycles into their courtyard and climb a homemade ladder to a balcony where we’re fed melted cheese sandwiches and fresh tomato and cucumber salad while playing with their cat. They take us for a tour of their garden and larder, proudly showing us a huge cucumber before loading us up with more tomatoes, small green chillies and grapes. Its after we’ve left these kind strangers that we notice the name of the village and realise after months of careful navigation, we’ve taken a spectacularly wrong turn.
We pull out the map and look at the options. We could change our route completely to take in an interesting valley directly south of Eskisehir, but we would be committing to at least 40 kilometres of riding on a busy main road, and a significant number of kilometres added to the trip. There is also a tiny grey road which should join up with our intended route, but our map doesn’t give us any idea of the distance or road quality.
As we are finding it hard to decide, I take out a coin and flip it. Tails comes up which means we should go south. I stand on the side of the road eating grapes and contemplate this, while watching a stream of trucks driving towards the main road we’ll be joining. A single tractor approaches turning off towards the small road ‘shortcut’ and without a further glance at the main road we follow in its tracks.