Across Continents

Ken's Blog

Taste of Turkey

February 19th, 2010

We’d no real idea where these places were, and even if we did, we’d no desire to go there. We’d wandered into Trabzon’s main bus station simply out of curiosity, a chance for my Father to get a taste of day-to-day life in Turkey. Loud and bustling, ticket touts from the many rival companies vied for business, shouting out what we assumed to be destinations. Few women, the men darkly clothed. Good natured, not aggressive. Comfortable, modern coaches outside contrasting with the rather shabby terminal building.

My Father had finally made it to Trabzon in the early hours, his flight from the UK delayed considerably. I’d retired early, expecting him to have to spend an unplanned night in a hotel en-route, arriving mid-morning. By now gone midnight, he’d wisely telephoned from Reception to let me know he’d made it. Probably wise. You’d not want to sneak unannounced into a room with someone who keeps his dog repellent close at hand.

After breakfast we’d headed to Trabzon’s main shopping mall. Lots of familiar high street names, just like the hotel, it had a familiarity, a reassuring sameness about it. We’d intended having a brief look around before venturing into the city centre proper, but, quite unexpectedly, found ourselves being invited to join some engineering students for tea on the terrace. They’d overheard us speaking and were keen to practice their English. They were first year engineering students at the local Technical University, with aspirations to travel, interested to learn about the UK.


We chatted for a good while before explaining we wanted to explore a little of Trabzon before it got dark. Parting company, we’d headed off into the city proper and the main bus station.


Different world

February 18th, 2010

Six hundred and eighty pounds. The cost of an hour’s telephone call to Afghanistan, the contents of the mini-bar, and laundering my clothes. I was staying in a better class of hotel in the Turkish Black Sea city of Trabzon, awaiting the arrival of my father later in the day. A very different world from the one I’d become accustomed to. I’d stayed in these sorts of places before, as a business traveller, so knew they’d be a re-assuring familiarity, a sameness, about the place. And there was.

I’d arrived late the previous evening, a twelve hour journey by coach from Sinop. A chance, I told myself, to take a look at the coast road before I returned once more to Sinop to ride along it. For the most part it looked grim, busy dual carriageway much of the way. But I’d ridden on far worse roads, albeit not for hundreds of kilometres. Sometimes it’s best not to know what’s ahead.

You suspected I’d be a guest the hotel staff would remember for a while. Bright yellow jacket, black leggings. I promised the receptionist I had more conventional clothes to wear. With sandals. Emma had also come with me and she’d be sharing a room with my father and I. Cleaned her especially. Ready, should there be a problem, to point out pets were allowed in the rooms so a bike would be just fine, but in the end nothing was said. I carried her to the room, the porter following with the panniers.

The next morning the buffet breakfast was as I suspected. The familiar Turkish choices – boiled eggs, bread, cheeses, tomatoes and cucumber – or the more Western options – muesli, scrambled eggs, no bacon of course. I plumped for the latter selection, barely a hesitation. And why not I thought? A welcome change, a chance to give my cholesterol a break. Stuck with warm Turkish tea mind.

I was intrigued by my fellow breakfasting guests. Small groups of business men, the senior holding court, the underlings smiling and nodding in all the right places. The odd business woman, alone, feisty. Probably getting more done than their male counterparts. A few families. One seemed to make endless demands on the staff, extracting every last ounce out of their stay. I returned to my room. There were socks to wash and only a hairdryer, no hot radiator.


Mistaken identity

February 16th, 2010

I’d resigned myself to being mistaken for a German. I’ve nothing against them, of course, far from it. It’s just that I’m not one. But it does have its advantages when you’re trying to get things done. Quite a few Turkish people have worked in Germany, often for decades, and so speak the language. Fluently. And, despite my protestations that I speak only a little bit of German, it always comes thick and fast, the odd word discernable. But enough to get by.

I’d reached the town of Turkeli, unusually whilst still light, a day’s ride short of Sinop and the onward journey to meet up with my father. Choice to two hotels – the familiar workers establishment, or the ’Turistic’ one. I plumped for the latter – out of season little difference in cost – hoping, in this instance somewhat optimistically, you will eat in their restaurant – and usually with a few of life’s luxuries. Like hot water when you want it, rather than just at some obscure time of the day.

I was warmly greeted by an old man, perhaps another guest, possibly the owner, it was hard to say. But very helpful, and a German speaker. Twenty years with Volkswagen. He helped with the bags, and understood the bike would be in the room with me. Even found me a German satellite news channel.


Twists and turns, ups and downs

February 16th, 2010

Coastal road

Beyond Amasra the road changes. Winding steep descents, only to slowly, painfully, regain the height, traversing around the next headland. Then downhill once more, perhaps eight hundred feet. Tough coastal riding. A struggle to average little more than twice a good walking pace. I was reckoning on about six thousand feet of climb each day, hauling Emma and sixty pounds of kit.

Winding road

Barely any respite, perhaps a few kilometres of relatively flat road each day, no more. Little traffic and few settlements. A first beautiful, unspoiled, before the repetitive tedium, the slow, grinding progress, takes hold. The odd gem to lift faltering spirits, a natural harbour reminiscent of Lulworth Cove in Dorset.

Few people seemed to visit this section of the Black Sea coast, even in summer. Just the odd place to stop, mostly workers hotels, cheap and functional. The houses, with their distinctive concrete frames and red brickwork, reminded me of rural Bulgaria.

I was finding progress frustratingly slow. I’d a plan to reach the port of Sinop, some four hundred kilometres east of Amasra. From there I planned to leap ahead by coach to meet up with my father, before returning to continue east once more on the bike. But I needed to get to Sinop first, and endless poring over my doubtful map wasn’t bringing it any closer. Nothing for it but to pedal harder. At least the weather was holding, and frequently I’d be invited off the road for warm, sweet tea by curious locals.


Towards Amasra

February 16th, 2010

Seventeen kilometres he’d said. It was getting late, but I’d decided to push on to the seaside resort of Amasra. I’d stopped in the large inland town of Bartin for warm tea and soup, and a chance to glean something of the road ahead from the cafe’s owner. It sounded fine. He’d been a cook in the Merchant Navy and, as I quickly ate, told me of the many countries he’d visited.

As the light faded the rain had set in, but progress was good. Then an unexpected junction. As I pondered which way to go, a car stopped and the driver explained. Take the shorter old road to Amasra, or the newer highway, a few kilometres more. I decided on the latter, expecting it to be quicker, particularly in the dark. It probably was, but as I slogged my way up into the hills in the cold, damp night, no sign of my destination, I began to wonder if I’d misunderstood, that perhaps this was a bypass. Disheartening.

Then, suddenly, to my left, the lights of Amasra. My spirits lifted, I quickly found the turn off towards the town, steadily making the long, downhill descent. Reluctant to drop down too far, I came across a hotel on a high promontory, overlooking the harbour. Looked a bit on the expensive side, but I’d learnt that there was often little relationship between appearances and cost. I’d go and ask. Less than twenty pounds for a night, and they could rustle up an omelette for me. Bargain.


Out of season

February 16th, 2010

It was gone nine. Tired of my frequent banging on the hotel’s front door, the night porter had eventually risen from his couch and let me in. He shuffled off, I hoped, optimistically, to prepare breakfast of sorts. I’d arrived late the previous night into the small Black Sea town of Turkali.

There was just one place to stay, a collection of seaside holiday apartments dotted around a small hotel. It wasn’t expensive, but I still felt a bit aggrieved. Nothing worked. My efforts to complain resulted in shrugged shoulders. The few other residents seemed equally lethargic, wrapped up in their jackets and woollen hats to fend off the indoor chill.

I’d left the warmth of Alapli the previous day, making steady progress to the large industrial town of Zonguldak. Grim. I’d decided to leave the main highway, instead following the smaller coastal road towards what I hoped would be some lovely seaside towns and villages. What I found was impossibly steep climbs and plunging descents, amidst endless urban sprawl. I stopped briefly in Catalagzi which, like the railway marshalling yards along its length, seemed much neglected. It would soon be dark, no choice but to continue along the valley in search of the coast. It was this that had brought me to Turkali.

Breakfast, when it eventually appeared, was the establishment’s one and only redeeming feature. The bill settled, time to move on. I’d heard that the fishing port of Amasra, sixty or so kilometres along the coast, was definitely worth a visit. It could only get better.


Warm welcome in Alapli

February 11th, 2010

Zehra - web version

Home made soup and a hot shower. I’d finally reached the coastal town of Alapli, thirty five kilometres east of Akcakoca, to be warmly greeted by Zehra, my host for couple of days. She’d travelled a good deal herself and understood life on the road. Her generosity was matched only by those of her friends. A few were, like Zehra, fellow cyclists. I’d already sensed that cycle touring wasn’t a popular pastime in Turkey, certainly not in winter, and this they confirmed.

Over dinner in the evening I was introduced to Turkey’s national drink – Raki. I’d half expected it to be a potent firewater, but whilst strong certainly, it had a pleasant aniseed taste. Dangerous.

Feeling surprisingly refreshed the next day, the offer of a sauna from Zehra’s good friend Huseyin was nevertheless very welcome. He’d installed one in his barbers shop, as smart and immaculate as the pharmacy he also ran a few doors away. We chatted a great deal, Islam, Capitalism, subjects that often people are reluctant to discuss, especially with relative strangers.


Clean socks and ‘chai’

February 11th, 2010

They were most insistent. I should put on the clean, dry socks they’d found for me. I hadn’t the heart to explain that once I put my boots back on, they’d soon be as sodden as my own, presently steaming next to the cafe’s stove. I’d stopped outside a little seaside establishment near the town of Karasu, quickly finding myself being beckoned inside, a chair drawn up for me next to the fire. Hot tea (cay, pronounced ’chai’) was provided, followed a short while later by a large toasted sandwich.

I’d left Kandira early, aiming to reach the coast by lunchtime, conscious of some lengthy climbs and a good deal of ground to be covered to my next stop. During a mid-morning break for tea an elderly chap kept saying ’wasser’ (German for ’water’), but exactly why was unclear. A little later, as I descended towards the flat coastal strip, the meaning became quickly apparent. A river had burst it’s banks, submerging the road under a couple of feet of water.

Any detour, even if I could find one on my dubious map, would add hours to an already lengthy day. No choice but to wade knee deep through several hundred metres of icy water, carrying my kit. Emerging from the flood water, a few bemused onlookers approached as I sat wringing my socks out. They suggested a nearby guest house where I could dry off properly. I thanked them, but explained I had to push on. A few kilometres later, my legs now feeling numb with cold, I’d spotted the seaside cafe and decided a short break was now in order.

Returning to the road in clean socks, stoked with tea and toasted sandwich, I continued east along the coastal strip. Beyond Karasu it seemed very grey, featureless but for the wide road and sporadic clusters of workshops and small businesses. But, as the rain returned, it did afford a relative quick passage towards the town of Akcakoca. It looked big enough on the map to offer shelter, even out of season.

The final ten kilometres towards Akcakoca drew me away from the coast, climbing once again. It was beginning to get dark. I was flagging. Then another small cafe. Like so many I’d passed, it seemed to be more a place for local men to meet than a viable business. Beckoned inside once more, I was fed warm, sugary tea whilst I sought to explain what I was doing. Spirits lifted, on to Akcakoca. Couple of more short climbs I was assured, then downhill to the coast.

I found the lights of Akcakoca alluring on such a bleak night, quickly finding a small hotel. For about thirteen pounds I wasn’t going to quibble, and they could quickly fix me a hot meal. Very comfortable. I’d found in Turkey, and to some extent in Serbia and Bulgaria, that the quality of accommodation often bore little resemble to the price. One of the nicest stops had cost me about £7.50, about the same price as a night’s camping in France.


Mad dogs and….

February 4th, 2010

Beyond the coastal town of Sile, it didn’t take long for the D-20 dual carriage way to be reduced to a potholed minor road. Foolishly, I decided to switch to the coastal route, mainly because it would be quite a bit shorter, and I didn’t think it could be any worse. It was. Bitter, penetrating winds, winding descents and steep climbs, traversing valley after valley. Took about three hours to cover just thirty kilometres.

For a supposedly coastal route, the Black Sea rarely put in an appearance until I reached the seaside town of Agva. Pleasant enough, but, conscious of limited daylight, I pressed on inland, back on the D-20, towards the town of Kandira. As I headed away from the coast a light dusting of snow on the surrounding hills soon became a thick blanket, fortuitously just the road remaining clear.

Progress was now much better, abruptly interrupted only by the odd dog encounter. I’d already abandoned my electronic dog deterrent since all it seemed to do was, at best, to arouse curiosity, but more often than not, to act like a beacon for every mastiff in the neighbourhood. Fortunately, the dog repellant faired better, but even that really required the canine to be downwind or else you ran the risk of coming off worse in the encounter.

Reaching Kandira at nightfall – population 14,500 the sign said – I was hopeful of somewhere to stay. Stopping beside a cafe on the edge of the town, I soon drew a small crowd, whose intent, I quickly realised, was to help me. A brief conversation in French with a woman and a man was detailed off to escort me to what I hoped would be a cheap hotel.

And cheap the hotel certainly was – about eight pounds for a bed. Quirky too – no light switch in the room, you had to ask Reception to turn the bare bulb on and off. Not a huge inconvenience as it was only about ten feet away. But, nevertheless, a friendly establishment, a steady stream of hot tea as I sat in the lounge. Just best not to mention the one communal toilet and shower.


Harry Potter

February 2nd, 2010

Harry Potter. Definitely. Actually, he was the owner, not just of a small hotel, but a collection of riverside chalets and apartments. Not bad for twenty three. I’d arrived late on a wet February night, looking for somewhere to escape the weather. A little birthday treat.

He knew well I’d not be going on any further that night, but equally I knew he’d want the trade. An online translation service proved much quicker than my phrase book, enabling us to quickly settle on a price. I’d shown him my website and dinner had been thrown in. The translator advised that an evening meal was available ’immediately’. It was late I suppose.

We skipped the menu, but the food was hot and plentiful. I watched the owner at work, quietly ushering his staff. A light touch, interrupted only by the occasional ringing of his phone he kept close at hand. In the morning I returned to reception to retrieve my passport, catching a brief glimpse of his office. Business like. By the time I got home he’d probably have a chain of hotels.

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