Following our unexpected experience in Istanbul it was a relief to arrive at the Black Sea coast the next day. This was our first sea sighting of the trip and it was amazing to get into the water and then wild camp with views of the beach. Turkey’s Black Sea coastline is fairly windy and attracts wet weather - whilst we were there the water was sometimes too choppy to swim, patrolled by eager lifeguards to ensure everyone was safe. There are also very few major sights along this stretch making it an uncommon for tourists who are more likely to seek out the western coastline or the magical scenery of Cappadocia. We did consider cycling via the latter, but after events in Istanbul we felt more at ease steering clear of anywhere that took us near to Ankara. As it turned out, Turkey’s sleepy northern coastline proved a quiet, relaxing and beautiful stretch for cycling. The water is extremely fresh, being fed by several rivers including our old friend the Danube, the beaches are full of friendly local tourists and families, and whilst the ups and downs of the route might make your thighs scream, they also provide for beautiful views over the coast and of the forested mountains.
Another wonderful feature of this route was our new cycling friends, Todor and Ivan. On our second day of the route we stopped for lunch at the beach (coastal route rule one: stop every time you see the water!) Two Bulgarian cycle-tourers pulled over to our table to say hello. They had also been in Istanbul during the attempted coup and were similarly happy to be cycling the coastline, though struggling as we were with the hills. We suggested cycling together and they insisted on getting a head start as they thought they would be slower than us. We protested - this couldn’t be possible! Yet half an hour later we caught them up and at that moment realised this was the start of a fantastic cycling friendship. Finally, we had found people as slow as us!
We wild camped together on a beautiful beach buffeted by rocks so we could swim safely. That night we discovered more about their wonderful approach to cycle touring. We had already noticed their gravity-defying bike set up, involving myriad bags, bottles and other random objects (guitar/ drum/ flute/ huge stick serving as a bicycle kick-stand) all strapped to the back of their bikes and somehow surviving the bumps of the road. We were now treated to their campsite music-making and shared our whisky and Ivan’s family rakia under the stars. Ivan and Todor taught us to fully relax into our touring trip: if they see a fruit bush or a nut tree, they stop to pick them; if they see some water, however feasible it seems, they will swim in it; if they arrive at a camping spot in the dark, they will prioritise playing the bagpipes (yes, they packed Bulgarian bagpipes) over pitching their tent. We can’t say we enjoyed this last part all that much. The bagpipes are a notoriously difficult instrument to master and their command of them was poor to say the least. Still, pobody’s nerfect, as they say.
And so commenced nearly three weeks of cycling along the Black Sea together. This was our first properly hilly stretch so a good day in the saddle became anything over 30 km. We wild camped together every single night, mostly on beaches, sometimes in fields, by streams, in people’s gardens, or at gas-stations. We washed in streams, bathrooms and at mosques. Turkish people seem entirely unfazed by our camping. On one occasion we set up our tents in the middle of a crowded beach as the sun set and nobody batted an eyelid. Perhaps unsurprising considering the fabulous picnic and camping holiday culture in Turkey. If we ever struggled to find a spot we would just ask someone we passed. Petrol station staff were particularly helpful - we had read about this in numerous cycling blogs. Petrol stations provided us with water, chai, wifi, snacks and at times a place to lay our heads. Knowing this, combined with the warmth and encouragement we met along the way, meant that we felt the safest yet travelling in Turkey. We loved the ease of wild camping, never planning your day or knowing where it would end. Inevitably, any camping spot would feature a noisy dog and the sounds of prayer calls early in the morning, but we slept well each night, relaxed by the salt water and tired from our hilly rides. Each morning Todor woke us around 7 with a cheerful song to start our day.
First sea sighting
Our Bulgarian buds and the Black Sea Coast
great spot to wildcamp...
... complete with obligatory canine companion
tucking into some freshly picked nuts
the lush scenery is dotted with stunning minarets
The slow progress we made due to the hills was halted further by the constant invitations we received to stop and drink chai (çay). Chai is a huge part of the Turkish culture and people we met told us they drank around 15 to 20 glasses a day. This beats even the ardent English tea drinkers, though admittedly the glasses are a little smaller in Turkey. The tea is brewed in two separate pots stacked on top of one another and the strong liquid from the tea leaves is diluted by hot water and served without milk but usually with a few sugar cubes. The leaves comes from Rize on the northern coast and have a particular flavour. Even truck drivers on the side of the road carried their own stove and kettle set-up to brew during their journeys, and often beckoned us over to share a few drinks.
Perhaps our blog risks turning into a long litany of random acts of kindness, but we can’t help but include some stories of generosity from our time in Turkey. Cycling up a hill in the heat we were beckoned into a garden by a Turkish family sat around the table of their holiday home. We were treated to chai, homemade cake, freshly picked plums and some singing by their young daughter and her friend, with Tim accompanying on guitar, Ivan on the drums and me playing a chewing gum packet like a shaker. Later we came to a beach resort for a swim and met a Russian former basketball player called Jana who produced a breakfast spread for us and later invited us to see the caves at her town of Eregli (where, according to myth, Hercules entered and defeated the three-headed dog Cerberus who guarded them). Once, visiting a petrol station for an ice cream we were ushered into the cafe and given plates of delicious fresh cooked food. So many times we were invited into people’s homes as we passed through small villages and provided with shade, chai, fruit and chorba (soup). On one occasion we camped in a clearing encircled by trees near a coastal town for three days (Ivan, Todor and Tim were suffering tummy upsets after drinking some of the Eregli cave water). A group of local children seemed very interested in our set-up and kept walking past and staring at us. They disappeared before reappearing with chips for us to eat, the second night they brought nuts, then on our final morning they gifted us some pine cones and fresh flowers which one girl arranged in my hair.
There really is nothing like cycle touring to renew your faith in humanity and kindness when the world sometimes seems to be crumbling into a big horrible mess of fear and cruelty. Being fairly cynical Brits we have been taken aback by the generosity we have encountered and sometimes struggle with it. It has taken us some time to learn to accept such kindness from strangers and we vow to pass this forward in some way after our trip.
Shortly after this was taken the singing broke out
Jana's breakfast spread didn't last long in front of us ravenous cyclists
we were later bestowed with tasty petrol station fare
these women beckoned us in for shade and chai in the heat of the day
more generosity, this time bagels
truckside chai drinking
these petrol station owners gave us a home for the night
We had arranged to meet Martin again near Sinop to cycle our last Turkey stretch to Samsun and with this in mind (and struggling with the coastal hills) we set off on an inland route from the bustling coastal city of Zonguldak. This still offered stunning scenery, taking us through mountains and along a river close to the main road. Along this route we also went through some cities with extensive roadworks and building works - Turkey seems to be a country of huge infrastructural development.
A few days in we bumped into two British tourers on a tandem bike, George and John aka thetandemmen.com. We chatted at a tea stop and heard all about their project - they are aiming to enter the Guinness Book of Records by becoming the first tandem cyclists to circumnavigate the world. We were pretty impressed that they were coping with each other’s company not only sharing a tandem but also sharing a tent. We find spending so much time together can be challenging, but at least we have our own bikes when we need to put some space between us on rides!
The next day we were forced to stop early and stay overnight at a petrol station due to a storm. We had a chat about our route and decided that now we had come this far we would try our best to push on all the way to China. However, taking into account the cold weather that would hit by early November, we realised we would have to take some public transport and decided to get a bus from Samsun to Batumi in Georgia. This would mean cutting our time in Turkey short, but we would only miss the flat part of the route along the main motorway. It felt good to make the decision to push to China and gave us a bit of a needed kick up the arse to get ourselves motivated and cycling harder.
We continued on as the weather cleared, passing down to the town of Hanonu where we received a surprising welcome. A local journalist with a camera literally leapt into our path and, alongside a small gathering crowd, ushered us to sit outside a cafe as he fired a quick round of questions to us all in turn about our trip. The whole experience was hilarious and he assured us we would be in the local paper - fame, at last! The next day our last push toward the coast included a consistent and gruelling 20 km climb, but the way down was just incredible - right up there with our favourite cycling stretches. We descended from up above the clouds right down to sea level at speed and it felt like we were flying. After climbing for 3 hours we had journeyed back down in 20 minutes. We wild camped by a waterfall and showered in its cooling waters. The next day we met Martin at the beach town of Gerze, which was charming and had a fantastic swimming area. It was great to hear his stories of cycling and of visiting Cappadocia. The five of us cycled on swiftly from Gerze to Samsun over the next two days - the road was flat and the wind on our side.
We had a fun last night together before we headed for our overnight bus the following evening. Samsun was a great city, with bustling streets and a beautiful park stretching along the coast. It was our first major city since Istanbul and as we headed to dinner, we walked past a ‘pro-democracy’ protest in the main square. It felt staged and stilted, as a sparse crowd of people stood in silence with Erdogan’s image flittering on a flag flying behind. During our time in Turkey, the political situation has felt present in our minds. The state news is always playing in cafes, restaurants and service stations, showing constant coverage of the failed coup. Often this consists of shots of civilians standing up against the military spliced with staged footage of Turkish people running dramatically toward a flagpole and standing on top of one another's shoulders until one man climbs high enough to jump and unfurl the Turkish flag. This coverage stood in sharp contrast to the international news we were following keenly throughout our travels. Martin purchased a Turkish sim card during his stay and each day received government texts. We put one into google translate and it said something along the lines of ‘democracy, not tanks. Erdogan.’ We left the country feeling uncertain and concerned for Turkey’s political future, but certain of the kindness of the Turkish people.
The tandem men
Taking the inland route
Cooling down during the 20 km climb
We'll miss these guys. The bagpipes not so much...