The smell of roasted onions followed us through one last agricultural belt before the salt plains of Tuz Golu. Huge red hessian sacks of onions placed systematically across the horizon look like a modern art installation, teams of onion pickers knelt over their work, and after the last onions were pulled from the ground the fields were set on fire, creating an eerie glow on the horizon on a couple of moonless starry nights. With this sweet smell assaulting our senses we had visions of cheese and onion crisps, only to be replaced by dreams of ready salted crisps once we hit the salt plains of Tuz Golu.
These are flat lands, but between adventures with punctures and Justin’s upset stomach we take three days to cycle the 200 km between Beypazari and Cihanbeyli, which was about halfway to our goal of Goreme in the heart of Cappadocia.
At night we climb up hills to get away from temporary work camps which seemed to be set up on every stretch of flat land. One night we’re disturbed by three sets of shepherds’, all shining torches on our tent while their flocks pass by. Later that evening we had another ant incident – this time they’ didn’t eat anything, but they did find their way into the tent and were seemingly drunk on the smell of our sandals which were left under the tent awning. We organised ourselves into MacGyver-inspired action and used a combination of petrol-dousing and a hand trowel scraping to “persuade” them to leave us alone.
We arrive in a small village called Suluklu on the first morning of the Bayram festival where to our delight it is customary to give sweets to strangers. We spend some time talking to a shop owner and customers, are mobbed by a crowd of kids off school for the four day holiday when we stop further along the main road to look for a fruit and vegetable shop. On our way out of the village we are halted again, this time by a young guy called Ismail who looks out of place in this rural community with his iPod, bright green shirt and slick haircut. He explains he is working at a resort on the coast called Alanya, and has returned to his village for the holiday.
Ismail invites us back to his house for a few glasses of ice cold Fanta before we go on, introducing us to his cousin and two women from northern Europe who are girlfriends of the men. A heavily pregnant neighbour comes over and they greet her saying ‘Welcome to Alanya!’ Before we leave we are given a tour of their simple family homes, devoid of western-style furniture and filled instead with rich carpets and thick cushions. We finally leave just before midday only to see them driving past several times over the rest of the day.
Cihanbeyli is a tiny town with not much to its name but it beguiles us. We find a simple hotel room, and eat at the only restaurant open in town where our photos are taken by the restaurateur and he introduces us to his family. Another customer pays for our cay at one of the tea shops on a tiny square.
After a good night’s sleep we find the only bicycle shop in town. It isn’t open because of the festival, but the owner of a nearby mini market rings the bike shop owner and invites us to wait in his shop until he arrives. He offers us the best wheel in the shop, taken off a brand-new mountain bike but despite Justin’s protests, he also insists on helping change tyres and covering the chain with a thick stream of gooey oil that looks like it would be more at home on a tractor.
Justin’s rear inner tube fails on the outskirts of town due to being pinched when the new tyre was fitted, as two men are bounding across a field towards us on donkeys. Both men dismount and sit silently beside us watching as we fix the puncture, reload the bike, hear the hiss of the inner tube deflating again, and repeat the process. As we’re fixing the tube for the second time we discuss catching a bus, but with just three days of cycling left, we cross our fingers and head across the salt plains.
We have a failing pump and few inner tubes left and we are cautious as we cycle on. We avoid the 14 km detour to the lake front of Tuz Golu (Salt Lake) and what we see from the road isn’t as inspiring as we had hoped. Its dry and flat out here, the mud of dried lakes doesn’t taste like salt and the small villages don’t hold a lot to distract us. I feel like we’re static and the landscape is slowly being pulled towards us as we struggle against a headwind towards towns which look impressive from a distance but amount to one or two empty shops and a mosque when we get closer.
We turn onto a main road, visiting a Silk Route Caravanserai and meet a busload of tourists from Netherlands who crowd around our bicycles finding as much excitement in the fact that we cycled here as the ancient building behind us.
The remainder of our cycling is on big roads with nothing but petrol stations punctuating the landscape. We pull our bikes off the road behind one for our final night free camping before Cappadocia. Our view is almost 360 degrees and encompasses a mountain range including some of the volcanoes which would have created the landscape of the region. We discover one last flat tire before we retire for the night and resolve to get up early for our last day of cycling towards Cappadocia.