Into Istanbul

Having crossed the Danube for the umpteenth and final time we headed south and into Bulgaria. The landscape changed almost immediately with clearly more fertile land being used for more industrial sized agriculture and we enjoyed (what is happening to us?!) some hill climbs for the first time in a while.

We planned to get to Burgas where we were aiming to get a cargo ship across the Black Sea to Georgia.

We headed off and into the wind knowing we were in no rush (there was only one ship a week and it left in 4 days). Along the way we cooked pasta on our stove on an incredibly windy balcony of a guesthouse and joined some local ladies watching football and getting increasingly upset as the big rivals knocked in goals in what we took to be a big grudge match.

On the third day, seeing the route layed out in front of us, there was clearly a “main road” version and a “quiet back streets” way. The back streets had some hills, sure, but nothing that couldn’t be scaled and it looked a lot more direct than the slightly boring mainish roads we had been on for the past couple of days. Easy decision made and off we headed, cruising through villages on nice tarmac and waving hello to the locals. Soon came a left turn on to a slightly more dubious lane which according to Google and all our other mapping apps was still most definitely a “road”. An hour later we were still bumping along but it was getting harder, steeper and much more remote. Nothing worth turning back for, but not exactly making good progress. Another hour or so and we were well and truly stuck in, the road was not a road, barely a path at times but the hope of it returning just around the corner kept us going. We pushed deeper into the bush, dragging our bikes up scraggy hillsides, hearing rustling of wild animals everywhere getting increasingly worried by the “no entry” signs accompanied by undecipherable words in cryliic alphabet. Having no alternative, on we pressed and after another hour or so of little progress we stumbled across a wonky covered picnic table area and set up camp.

Luckily we were not visited by any beasties although we did hear the caws of birds throughout the night. Up early in the chilly forest, we were surprised (and somewhat relieved) to bump into a man who seemed to be a forest ranger. Despite being equally surprised to see us, he mimed that there was tarmac in a couple of miles further on. Happily we made it to the asphalt, and our smiles got even wider when we saw a sign with pictures of huge birds and guns that explained that we had in fact survived crossing and sleeping in a condor hunting reserve..! Pleased and relieved we continued on smooth roads for the rest of the day and eventually arrived in Burgas.

During our slow ascent into the wilderness we had decided that instead of catching the ferry to Georgia we would continue south and head to Istanbul. Whilst we have no real time limit on our adventure, with winter approaching in the back of our minds we are aware that temperatures could get seriously chilly before we can head south. We decided that even by skipping Turkey (by catching the boat), we still wouldn’t have time to cycle the ‘stans properly before temps like minus 20 arrive, so we may as well not try to rush and miss a country we had been looking forward to. So instead of heading to the port, we turned south towards Istanbul.

Within minutes of crossing the border, we experienced the famous Turkish hospitality when Verity’s saddle fixing sheared completely off! After a wobbly few miles (Verity on Joe’s bike and Joe sitting on the tent where the saddle should have been on Verity’s bike) we made it to the next town and found a friendly mechanic who managed to use a random car screw to fix the saddle back on for no charge.

Turkish warmth and kindness acontinued a day later when, at the end of a rainy day into relentless headwind, we asked a random gentleman at the side of the road if he knew anywhere where we might be able to camp. Before we knew it, we were being fed delicious soup and bread and sharing çay and cake. We were invited to pitch our tent in the farmyard, however as the evening got chillier we were welcomed into the house and offered the spare room and a hot shower! A fun evening followed of us sitting with the chicken farmer in his pajamas and sleeping hat and trying to have a conversation despite no glimmer of any shared language.

In the morning, we were treated to a plentiful breakfast with eggs from the farm and it was incredibly special when he showed us his Koran (in Turkish and Arabic) and he proudly sang some lines for us. We were really touched by his generosity and only wished we could have understood more about his family and life in Turkey.

Luckily the following day was less windy and less wet, and despite Joe getting the first puncture of the trip hours from the end of the first leg, we successfully cycled into Istanbul. The approach to the city is infamously busy and we have spent many hours researching the best route. We were pleased that the most direct road (D020) had a wide hard shoulder for us until we took several back roads into the centre.

Istanbul itself is fantastic: culturally rich, a friendly vibe and wonderful food. We had anticipated the bonkers traffic but were not expecting it to be so hilly!

We have enjoyed more than one day off the bikes for the first time since we left the UK. At very late notice, both our mothers were able to come out and join us for a spot of sightseeing and general çay drinking. It was really great to catch up and we now feel ready and raring to go for Asia!

We are really looking forward to exploring Turkey, then into Georgia and Azerbaijan. After that our plans remain a little in the air, and unfortunately the dream of heading south to cycle through Iran seems unlikely to materialise due to the visa situation for UK citizens and it will be definitely be too cold to continue east to cycle the ‘stans (for us at least!). The Pamir Highway will have to wait for another year…maybe next summer on the way home?!

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