Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Turkey: The Black Sea Coastline and the H word

"Stop being so bloody steep!" I nodded in agreement to James's frustrated cry at the unforgiving road. I was cradled over my handlebars lethargically mopping the rivulets of sweat trickling from my hairline, parting at the top of my ear and creating salty trails on my cheeks and behind my ear before meeting again to gather in the nook of my clavicule. This was tough. The melting tarmac was like cycling on a road of pillows, my tyres sinking deep as if some unknown force was drawing them into the earth, coupled with this was the fly paper consistency of the surface, the sound of a sticky bandaid being ripped from the road accompanied each slow turn of my wheel.

The top of a hill brought brief respite, a slight breeze would try to remove the cloak of humidity that clung to me. I thought back to high mountain days, trying to remember the gnawing ache of cold on the face of Alaska's Denali. How I yearned for that again, had it really been that bad? It was just cold right? How I now wanted to be wrapped in that cold. {My theory is that there is no special inner strength in people who do extreme expeditions.. it is simply that we are all blessed with a short term memory!}

The brief respite was just that, as a steep descent into another gorged valley only meant another steep ascent out of it again. It was worse in the mornings. Lactic acid build up caused immense fatigue as I faced a struggle up another steep ascent within only an hour of waking.
This graph gives you a taster of the elevation profile over a distance of 300km with max altitude of 450m just in case you wonder what the scale is!.

Yet the beauty of the coastline was enchanting. The Black Sea carressed rocky outlets, thick pine forests carpeted the undulating landscape, dusty villages with men drinking cai, elegant minarets with backdrops of milky seascapes and verdant hillsides.

The day I left Istanbul I felt I was starting my trip all over again. Could I still do this? I'd turned down a request from James, a cycle tourer following a similar route, to accompany me. I just needed a few days to adapt to the lifestyle again and I wanted to do that on my own. Within 10km I was smiling again, stopping at a bakery to buy the longest piece of bread i'd ever seen, all of 3.5 foot long (which I smothered in chocolate spread and scoffed the lot) and the bakery boys giggling at this strange woman with a loaded bicycle deserved to have their photo taken
My first night's camp was a disaster. Tucked into a forest on the edge of a clearing of felled trees I awoke to the sound of a heavy trampling over fallen branches. Grabbing my headtorch I peeped out only to see a cow weaving his way through the thick forest towards my tent. I grabbed my saucepan and banged it loudly. Is it possible for a cow to show a look of disgust in the spotlight of a bright beam? well, this one certainly seemed to show it. I drifted in and out of sleep, nervous of being trampled on, sitting bolt upright when something was sniffing at the side of my tent where my head lay. I despaired. Where had my backbone gone? This was going to be a long night as I sat still listening to the sounds of the forest and my shallow breathing. Suddenly the forest lit up. A car. What do I fear more? people or animals finding me alone. Voices. The sound of bottles clanking in a bag. A girlish giggle. Then the loud thumping sound of electronic music reverberated through the trees as these 2 young lovers had their own private rave for the next few hours. Well, at least it scared away the animals..

The next day I bandaged a tender knee, over 2 weeks of rest in Istanbul and the hills were having an impact on my slovenly body. I cycled to Agva where I had my first sighting of the Black Sea and drank cay with the locals. More hills followed yet descents were made on exhilerating switchbacks. I was back on the road and it felt good. Stopping at a picnic spot with a restaurant I asked if I could camp there for the night. Of course. A few people came to check the inside of my tent and it soon became clear why - snakes..Thankfully I'd had the zip fixed in Istanbul and they seemed content that the snakes could not enter when I was asleep so I relaxed and drank the cay and nescafe they gave me, followed by ice creams and Google translate conversations with Firdevs the university student working at the restaurant for the summer. Yet soon they decided I could not stay where I had pitched as it was dangerous after all.. not only snakes but drunken men may appear(!) so tent was taken down and all transported to the safety of the front garden of the couple who ran the restaurant. Tulli and Tarrot woke me in the morning and spoilt me with a fine breakfast before I left to head towards Karasu

It was a couple of days later in the town of Eregli that I decided to wait for James to catch up with me. I'd had an encounter the night before with a man near my tent which had resulted in me scaring the poor idiot for being too close to my tent and me then having to repitch in the dark to a safer area. Perhaps maybe I could start sleeping better if there were 2 people...

For 7 days we cycled together, sharing the mental and physical torture of the heat and hills, receiving the overwhelming hospitality from the Turkish people we met.
Berk who stumbled through the darkness to bring us cay and stuffed peppers from his bigmother (grandmother :)Onur and his mother who stuffed our panniers full of cakes and pastries, Bulenta and his wife Kezban who provided us with showers, beds and a feast, Mustava who did not mind when he stumbled upon us camped behind his cafe and brought us coffee and apologised for not having switched on the lights.

Daily the scenery became more spectacular, the hills more torturous, the heat more intense. I experimented with clothing set up. A thin white shirt resulted in me having a sunburnt back, a gingham dress while airy made me look like an extra for Little House on the Prairie, headscarves were made into turbans. On the 7th day I had found the right mix of clothing to wear and had also realised I wanted to go it alone again so I made my excuses and left James at Inebelou.

That evening while camped in the safety of a beach resort-  thanks to the owner who'd kindly let me pitch my tent for free on an ants' nest between 2 chalets- I contemplated my decision.  It had been so much easier with 2 people but I'd felt I had lost my journey and I desperately wanted it back.

The next morning I felt invigorated. The hills were no longer obstacles in the way of my progress east but part of the journey and my eyes opened again to the vibrancy of turquoise sea and lush vegetation.

I cycled into valleys to the atmospheric yet haunting sound of the muzzein call to prayer and took the hill out of villages with my belly full of cay from more kind people. Arriving in Ayancik after a day of 100km and 1300m of ascent I rested in the shade of a hotel cafe and after a couple of hours asked if anyone could recommend a safe place for me to camp. Within seconds a discussion was taking place, a phone was handed to me and a man in perfect American English told me that they knew a place a few km away and I should follow the man in the car. so another man appeared and I followed him on my bike as he drove up the unpaved coastal road, patiently waiting while I covered the distance at 5kmph. My escort led me to the home of Betir and Beysa: a stunning setting on the shoreline of the KaraDeniz.

Tent was pitched in their garden and I was invited onto their balcony, dishes of spicy aubergine, a minty soup, blackened fish, salad and a glass of chilled red wine were put before me and we communicated via a turkish/english dictionary. In the end I slept on the sofa bed opposite Beysa that night so heartened to be welcomed into this lovely family's home.

It hadn't all been rosy though..on my glorious 45kmph descent towards the town of Ajancik a large insect hit me on the side of my nose. This happens a lot when on the bike. What happened this time though was the damn thing didn't bounce off and I felt it clamp itself on to my nose. I braked, skidded then battled with my attacker. I wrenched the body off but the pain continued so grabbing my mirror and a pair of tweezers I extracted a large sting. Fastforward to a day later: I rested on a beach and was looked after by another lovely family and their friends who fed me both lunch and dinner of a 100 kebabs and roasted crab claws, invited me on holiday and gave me cream for my rapidly swelling face

3 days later with right eye shrinking in size at an alarming rate I saw a doctor and got some medicine. I am sure I saw a faint smirk appear when I explained to him with hand gestures and noises how it happened.

Just before the city of Samsun I ascended the final big climb of the Black Sea coastline yet on my descent I took my first tumble of the trip from my bike. Wiping the sludge that had caused my fall from my leg and reattaching 2 of my panniers I set off again. Now for some flatness!

So now I sit in my hostel room in Trabzon thinking back over the last few weeks of the H word. Hills, heat and the outstanding hospitality of the Turkish people
Even in the last few days before reaching here I had Baris, his parents and pet budgie let me use their holiday 'home' (tent) while they returned to the city, the young man from the beach cafe who carried my bags and bike down the steep steps to the shoreline, made me dinner and came rushing to check I was ok in the middle of the night when I screamed out during a nightmare in which someone was trying to get into my tent (incidentally I screamed even more when he appeared as thought he was trying to get into my tent..)

The route has been challenging but that's what I love and now it's onwards and eastwards to another unknown: the country of Georgia.


  1. Great post Jilly! Keep on pushing through and watch out for things that go 'bump' in the night!

  2. as I continue to devour each chapter of your story this far, I must say after reading this episode, how incredibly brave I think you are.

  3. Poor you - B***** insects! Great journey. I'm so envious and can't wait to start my own.