Turkish Black Sea Coast: Our Very First Week of Riding

To avoid what we thought would be a very stressful first day of riding we decided to take a ferry up the Bosphorus Strait past the suburbs of Istanbul. Leaving on a Saturday, we had few options on the public ferry system so we purchased a one-way ticket on the tourist ferry and headed out to Anadolu Kavağı, the last stop.

We had a 500m ride from our hotel in Sultanahmet to the ferry terminal and yet we woke up 3 hours before departure time and sat nervously through breakfast with me wondering if I would even be able to get my fully loaded bicycle up the first steep hill outside our hotel. Too worked up about Istanbul traffic we didn't even pose together for a departure photo as we rode past the Blue Mosque a few meters from our hotel.
Leaving the Agora Hostel in Sultanahmet, Istanbul on day one
A very anxious Emilie posing for the day one photo in front of the Blue Mosque

An uneventful two-hour ferry ride later we were in Anadolu Kavağı cycling up an extremely steep hill, which would be the theme of our first week of cycling. Within an hour Yann was carrying my front saddle bags.

Two hours into our ride we were overtaken by a group of four cyclists, two husband-and-wife teams, Brian and Amy ( from the US and Andy and Rosy ( from Switzerland. Brian and Amy had been riding from Morocco and Andy and Rosy from their front door. Both couples had over 4 months of cycling under their belts so needless to say they were stronger and faster than we were. But they were nice enough to let us ride with them and we set off as a veritable convoy along the Turkish country roads. Day one, meeting four cyclists on the road! (note Yann's bike loaded with Emilie's front paniers)

Meeting cyclists on the road was a total pick-me-up and gave us confidence despite our slow progress on the hills. Knowing that we weren't the only ones finding it difficult, although we were probably the ones finding it the most difficult, was a huge relief. All four of our companions were positive and encouraging and we followed along having to make few decisions regarding our route or our night's sleeping arrangements.

Yann and I had planned on staying in guesthouses for the first week of cycling, but it became evident on our first night that our route wouldn't necessarily be affording us that possibility every night. In a group of six, it is fairly easy to set up camp anywhere, which is what we did on our first night at a lovely isolated spot along the Black Sea coast.
Our first night's campsite, along the Black Sea
  Morning at our first night's campsite along the Black Sea

On our third day of cycling, Yann and I set off with Amy and Brian as Rosy had been very sick the previous night and needed a day of rest to recover. The terrain along the coast of the Black Sea remained extremely hilly and difficult with steep climbs and steep descents (giving no chance to glide up the next hill). But we stopped frequently, refilling our water bottles at the dozens of public water fountains lining the Turkish roads and giving ourselves the time to rest.

A common theme of our first week was the friendliness and helpfulness of the Turkish people. At every village we were given assistance almost immediately. People gave us directions, invited us for tea, blew kisses...

On our fourth evening we pulled into the town of Kandira looking for a place to stay the night. We were escorted through the town, first to the teacher's dormitory (full) then to the town's only hotel (also full) then back to the dormitory where somehow they agreed to make room for us. After securing us a room, the local man assisting us ended by giving us the advice to not even bother staying in Kandira, to cycle onwards to the town of Kerpe (on neither Yann nor Brian's GPS) where we would find a much better place to stay. He drew us a map and stuffed it in Yann's pocket. We were grateful to have trusted him because we ended up in a brand new resort town on the Black Sea with lovely inexpensive hotels and a great beach. This is where we had our first rest day. Arriving in Kandira with no place to stay, this concerned local man drew us a map to Kerpe, the seaside resort nearby

Leaving Kerpe we planned for our first 100km+ day to Akçakoca. This was a slightly ambitious plan and when we arrived in the town (12 hours and 105km later) we were exhausted and it was too late to set up camp and make dinner. As we were stopped on the side of the road trying to figure out where we would stay the night, Gazi, a local math teacher pulled up and offered to take us in for the night (“there are four of us you know?” “yes we have room, no problem”). We readily accepted his offer and he drove through the town with his four-ways on, escorting the four of us to his apartment where he cooked us dinner and set up comfortable beds for us and woke up early to make us breakfast before our departure.
Leaving our host Gazi's apartmet in Akçakoca

The next day Yann and I parted ways with Amy and Brian. We didn't feel too strong after our previous long day of riding, so after 30km we checked into a hotel and basically slept until the next morning.

We rode solo now for the first time since the first few hours of our trip. For one more day we followed the Black Sea coast (to Zonguldak) along the fairly busy D010 highway before turning away from the coast in an attempt to minimize the climbs. The main disadvantage with this plan is that we left the cooler coastal weather behind and so we began our routine of early morning departures (with a 4:30am wake-up) in order to avoid cycling through the intense midday heat.

Eight days after leaving Istanbul we rolled into Safranbolu, a historical  Ottoman-era town where we decided to spend what we felt were two well-deserved rest days. All things considered, a pretty successful start to our year of cycling thanks to the great local people and equally great travel companions. Yann with an adorable crew of local boys in Ibricak, a small town just outside of Yenice (they even washed and filled our water bottles)
  This adorable teashop owner and his son insisted we pull over for free tea (in Karabük a few kilometers from Safranbolu)
  Our week one companions: Amy and Brian (USA) and Andy and Rosy (Switzerland)

Stats for Istanbul to Safranbolu

Days of cycling: 6.5
Days of rest: 1.5
Kilometres cycled: 483
Metres climbed: 4783
Cycle-tourists crossed on the road: 8

The above map was compiled using GPS readings. Since we only took readings every hour it is not entirely accurate but it gives an idea of what we did. 

Partially sponsored by Mountain Equipment Coop  Expedition Support

Impressions of Istanbul (and #occupygezi)

Before we start cycling we gave ourselves four days in Istanbul to wind down from the last few weeks of pre-departure panic. Here is a summary of some of the things we did and saw in this super fun city:

Aya Sofya (537
This 1500-year-old monumental Byzantine church (the world's largest church for almost a thousand years) is impressive and obviously worth the visit. It is now officially a museum after serving as both a church (for ~ 1000 years) and a mosque (for ~ 500 years). It is in a constant state of repair (a large part of the interior covered in scaffolding) which surprisingly didn't detract from the visit. Particularly interesting is the juxtaposition of Christian and Muslim decorative elements like the Jesus mosaic in the main dome directly above the mihrab (prayer niche indicating the direction of Mecca).
Christian mosaic above Islamic prayer niche

Topkapi Palace (1453)
This is a huge sprawling palace complex which served as the primary residence of the Ottoman Sultans. Along with multiple halls and rooms it houses a large collection of precious items. Lots of emeralds (literally a bucket of them), rubies and even the world's fifth largest diamond. It is pretty overwhelming and we sometimes felt like we were seeing the same tile-adorned room over and over again. The impressiveness of the sight seems to be in its size even if a visit can seem a little monotonous. Inside a Topkapi Palace pavilion

For an additional fee you can enter the palace's harem, former living quarters of the Sultans and their families (including concubines). The decorative features are more ornate than those of the rest of the palace and it is less crowded making for a more enjoyable pleasant visit featuring a lot of Iznik tilework, mother-of-pearl inlay and some amusing descriptive signs about the importance of concubines.

Basilica Cistern (532)
An underground cistern supported by massive columns (apparently constructed from nearby ruins). Two of the columns are resting on giant Medusa heads (which were surrounded by mobs of tourists, including us). Other than the Medusas, we could comfortably visit the cistern on its elevated walkways.
Medusa head supporting a column of the Underground Cistern
We visited five of the city's famous mosques, but not nearly all of its notable ones. The key difference between each mosque, from our very limited perspective, was the number of tourists in each of them (we've listed them from most tourists to least) had we spent more time visiting them or if we had any knowledge whatsoever of architecture we might have been able to highlight some of their respective key features. Instead here are some photos:

Sultan Ahmed (Blue) Mosque (1616)
View of the Blue Mosque from Aya Sofya

Afternoon in the busy inner courtyard of the Blue Mosque

Süleymaniye Mosque (1558)
Inner courtyard of the Süleymaniye Mosque

Rüstem Paşa Mosque (1563)
Ceiling of the Rüstem Paşa Mosque

Yeni (New) Mosque (1665)
The busy square outside the New Mosque

Şehzade Mehmet Mosque (1548)
The quiet Şehzade Mehmet Mosque 

The Grand Bazaar and the Spice Bazaar

With no desire to purchase anything, we explored the bazaars as tourist attractions, which is what they are. The only locals in either bazaar are the sellers. Both were still fun to explore but the Spice Bazaar's displays were a little bit more novel and colourful. The fact that the markets are centuries old adds a little bit of mystique to the rows of trinket and carpet stalls. Turkish delight on sale at the Spice Bazaar

Touring the Grand Bazaar

Istanbul is extremely touristy. We had heard this repeatedly before arriving, but somehow pictured it differently. There are hundreds of tour buses, huge crowds at major attractions, wall-to-wall souvenir stalls and restaurants with inflated tourist prices. This is not to say that we didn't like it, that it isn't justifiably well-visited nor that it isn't easy to get off the tourist trail. On the contrary, we enjoyed our stay very much and found the touts to be far less annoying than other places we'd visited. We were never ripped off and within a few blocks from the main tourist streets found very well-priced delicious food. The setting of the city, at the confluence of the Sea of Marmara, the Bosphorus Straight and the Golden Horn is amazing with views of the water from almost every rooftop. In four days of sight-seeing we checked off items from our list of “must-sees” and “must-dos” leaving us little time to discover the city, but we did our best and we will surely return.

Occupy Gezi

The real highlight of our visit was Taksim Square the heart of the recent Turkish uprising which began with a protest to save Gezi Park, a small green space in the heart of a city with very few such spaces and quickly grew into a movement encompassing hundreds of thousands of Turks in dozens of cities across the country. In the face of an increasingly conservative and autocratic government people took to the streets with a broad range of concerns (police brutality, freedom of assembly, decrease in secularism, war in Syria...).
In a country that in 2013 ranked 154th out of 179 on the Press Freedom Index published by Reporters without Borders , people have turned to social media and alternative news sources to share their stories of what is happening in Turkey. For a comprehensive description of the movement check out the Wikipedia link 2013 Protests in Turkey or twitter #OccupyGezi

We visited in the afternoon on the day that the police began "clearing" the square (June 11th 2013). After overcoming the initial unease at the sight of water cannons, flying tear gas canisters and flaming barricades we visited Gezi Park where hundreds of protestors were still peacefully camped out. Our only disappointment was not being able to speak Turkish so that we could tell everyone there how inspired we were.

We're on the Road Again

You will soon notice a time jump in our posts. We have been catching up on writing from our trip through the Indian Himalayas two years ago but we are on the road again and would like to provide more up to date postings! 

We left 10 days ago on a cross-Asia cycling tour which you will be able to follow. When we get back we will return to India and other trips that we still have to write about!

Partially sponsored by Mountain Equipment Coop  Expedition Support