Turkey – into Asia

It’s fair to say that we have fallen totally in love with Turkey. We have been bowled over by the incredibly welcoming people, the delicious fresh food and the stunning, varied scenery. We have also relaxed about where we sleep… We have been hosted by locals, slept in caves and camped for free at petrol stations.

As ever, thoughts of impending winter are in the back of our minds. So that we can (hopefully) avoid too much chilly weather in Georgia and Azerbaijan, we decided to allow ourselves two bus journeys in Turkey. We have still cycled over 700 miles in Turkey and are so pleased we were able to see what we could.

The first bus took us from Istanbul to the capital, Ankara. Having arrived into the city at midnight (and a slightly dodgy cycle to a hostel) we woke ready and raring to go for central Turkey. Over the next few days we made our way south past the stunning salt flats at Tuz Gölü and towards Aksaray. We couldn’t resist cycling out over the salt, which helped us appreciate the vastness of the lake and its delicate pink colour. Once we were back on the road we noticed our bikes and panniers were completely covered in hard salt crystals! Luckily we found a hosepipe at the side of the road used to clean lorries and borrowed it to jet wash the bikes (which now look the cleaner than they have since we left!).

Regular (in fact, a ludicrous amount of) petrol stations not only provided safe spots to camp but also often had delicious little restaurants offering fresh meats, bowls of tomato, parsley and onion salads, grilled chillies, plentiful warm bread and dollops of homemade yoghurt. The meat was always delicious, be it flame grilled, shaved from a doner or as kebap meatballs. We also enjoyed Turkey’s favourite drink, Ayran, which is a buttermilk drink that goes beautifully with the slightly spicy food. The food is simple but deliciously cooked and we are trying to understand why the British equivalent is so vastly different.

After hitting Aksaray, we headed east towards the Ilhara valley and took a wiggly route across to Cappadocia. The Ilhara is a vast landscape, with cave cities dotted throughout the area and the Hasandagi volcano always on the horizon. The scenery was like something out of Westworld and it was very difficult not to stop every two minutes to take a photo!

Having stopped for a banana break in the village of Ilhara, we realised that we were by one of four entrances into the Ilhara canyon. As a last minute decision we decided to take a 10km walk down through canyon – which was surprisingly green and lush compared with the dry rolling hills above. Inside some of the caves were incredible churches, complete with colourful, peeling frescoes and the crumbling homes where people took shelter and hid during times of persecution.

It was time to head towards Cappadocia, a destination which has been top of the list for the trip since the beginning. Having read so much about the area and seen so many photos, there was a chance that Cappadocia couldn’t live up to our expectations. We shouldn’t have worried.

We first cycled up to Uçhisar Castle and climbed to top for an amazing overview of area. It was odd to suddenly see tourists and hear English voices! Over lunch we met Mario, an Italian guy who had been walking home from Australia for over 3 years! His journey included six months working in a soup kitchen in Mayalsia to pay back for kindness he had received. It was very inspiring to chat to him and we wish him well on getting home for Christmas!

In glorious sunshine, we cycled along the edge of Love Valley, and had a great view looking down on the columns. It was a bumpy, sandy track but totally worth it for the different perspective. We then had a race against sunset to find a cave to camp in for the night. On Instagram we had seen some friends (twobiketo, worldspokespeople and bigbiketripnz) find an incredible spot with panoramic views across Cappadocia… And we found it too! It really will be hard to beat – a small cave tucked away on a limb into the valley. It was as if we had the whole of Cappadocia to ourselves and we felt very lucky indeed.

Nothing would prepare us for the following morning. Having set our alarms early, we sat on the rocks listening to the first call of prayer echo from the distance mosques whilst gazing up at countless stars. Soon, the sun began to rise and, with it, over a hundred hot air balloons rose into the air. It was truly magical. We were lucky enough to see the balloons on both mornings despite it now being early October. One time, being eye level with the balloon baskets, a passenger called over “do you come here often?!” – we wish!

The cave allowed us to hide the bikes for the day and go explore the Red Rose Valley by foot. We climbed steep paths, scrambled down to oasis allotments and climbed through tunnels and up wonky ladders. Nature’s playground at its best.

After another glorious sunset, cave sleep and hot air balloon watch, it was sadly time to move on, so we cycled to Kayseri were we caught our second bus to Erzurum. In the winter, Erzurum is a ski resort but we were relieved not to see any snow yet and be treated to more sunshine! The town felt more European despite being further east, and there was a greater diversity in dress and food than we had seen elsewhere. Although, of course, we stuck to Turkish food. We did branch out with a fermented black carrot drink… The only Turkish thing we didn’t like!

Over the next three days we cycled north through the mountains. Again the landscape changed as we whizzed through red rock canyons, across wide green mountain passes and alongside turquoise rivers and huge hydropower dams.

Verity had her birthday on this stretch, and her present was 45+ tunnels and some more epic views. The infrastructure of carving out the road through the mountains was mind boggling. Whilst the tunnels were plentiful and some rather long (at almost 2km), they were well lit and we felt perfectly safe. We avoided the final 5km tunnel down to the coast and took a detour through tea plantations. After an initial steep climb, we enjoyed a cracking 20km descent to the Black Sea through tea plantations. It was then only a final few kms along the coast until we hit the Georgian border.

The final note on Turkey must be a thank you to all the locals we met along the way. Turkish hospitality certainly lived up to its reputation. We have been given countless glasses of chai, helmetfuls of fruit and “just out the oven” bread. We were even given some high vis vests to wear when cycling by a farmer! It has been great fun chatting to all the people we have met and we would already love to return to cycle other parts of the country.

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