Joy! I’ve just reached Istanbul having cycled all the way across Europe from London. I was worried that it wouldn’t feel special to reach here as Istanbul is somewhere I’ve visited before, but, as it turned out, during the agonising three days cycling towards it my memories of the place are what spurred me on to reach it a day early. This may seem like a depressing post but I will now detail probably the three most physically gruelling days of my life.
The most common route that cyclists take from Edirne to Istanbul is along a road called the D100 which is essentially a three day ride on the hard shoulder of a motorway that gradually gets busier and busier until it gets gridlocked near the city (including the hard shoulder). I’ve heard several British cyclists now mention statements along the lines of “The only cycling on earth worse than London is the approaches to Istanbul and Tehran”. Naturally I wanted to avoid this if possible.
If you look at the European part of Turkey on a map you’ll see a major motorway, the O-3, and the D100 traversing it in a direct line but you might also spot a smaller road called the D020 that takes a longer route to the north…
I thought that this would be my ticket and after a quick bit of research found that the road is quiet but there were some complaints that the tarmac is very coarse making cycling quite hard work. I decided I’d rather it be a tougher ride but safer and plotted a course down the D020.
I woke up early, left Edirne and first did a few km down the D100, lovely smooth tarmac, slightly downhill and a bit of tail wind. As soon as I pulled off onto the D020 towards Kirklareli the tailwind quickly became a really harsh crosswind and I very quickly realised that the coarser tarmac was much harder to cycle on. The road was rather hilly but this rarely goes on for a long time so powered on.
I was feeling strong after my day off, which had been laden with many kebabs, but after 45km on a very windy and coarse road I was feeling tired and road into a petrol station in Inece. I picked up an orange juice and I asked the guy working there if he had any coffee. He said no but then ushered me into the back room where he and the pump attendant hang out and made me some himself! I tried to pay him for the orange juice and coffee but he refused.
Whilst waiting for the kettle to boil, and after we realised we shared no language, the two of them proceeded to say which English football teams they support. Bugger. I don’t follow football, what should I say? Try and explain that not everyone in England loves football… or lie? It’s not like the conversation would last so I thought it easier to lie and said “Newcastle” to which they both shook their hands disappointedly.
Feeling much better for the coffee, the kindness and hospitality I’d been given, I carried on with renewed vigour. I was planning to either camp just after the town of Pinarhisar or maybe stay in a cheap motel if I was feeling grim. I felt good cycling through Kirklareli but once I started to near Pinarhisar the hills really got to me. It had been endless climbs and descents all day. Even though I spent the same distance climbing and descending it takes 10 minutes to climb a hill that you will then descend on the other side in a minute which leads to you feeling like you’ve done nothing but climb all day.
I started looking for somewhere to camp just before Pinarhisar but both sides of the road were ran with barbed wired and there were military signs everywhere. After passing three separate military facilities in the area I was leaning towards the idea of a motel. I found one were a room was £12 and went for it.
A little anecdote about this motel stay is that at about 9pm, whilst I was in my room, there was a sudden knock on the door. I open it and see the manager with another man I do not know who is holding a laptop. They quickly come in and before I understand what is going on they set the laptop up on the table. Initially I thought they wanted the strong Wifi connection in this room (They were leeching it from the petrol station next door) but they soon fired up Google Translate and started tapping away. It would seem that Google Translate doesn’t do a good job of translating Turkish to English but from the gist of what they were saying, and the manager constantly tapping his phone, I thought there was a problem registering my stay with the police either due to the registration call centre being closed or his phone not working. After about 10 minutes of going back and forth I finally realise the manager is trying to sell me his phone… for $250. What!? Is someone travelling on a bicycle really your best choice of customer for impulse purchasing a high end phone? I haggled with this man over a £12 room mere hours ago! When I declined his offer they both firmly shook my hand, thanked me and then left the room. Weird.
I set an alarm for 6 the next the morning. After riding 95km the day before I was on track to reach Istanbul in another 2 days if I got in a decent ride today. There were only 165km or so to go (an easy two days ride) but I wanted the ride into the city the next day to be as short as possible so I’d have more energy on the busy roads.
I hit the road at 7am, happy to leave the slightly creepy motel, and was instantly slapped in the face by a massive headwind and crosswind whilst riding up a hill. I couldn’t think of a decent way to photograph the wind but then realised my hair and facial expression may do it some justice… (notice the bonus sun in my eyes for the first few hours of the day).
I struggled on and stopped in a petrol station near the town of Vize. If you are wondering why I’m always stopping in petrol stations it’s that they are just so much easier as I can keep an eye on my bike where as in a normal shop it goes out of sight. They have free Turkish Tea (Chai, or çay as it’s spelt here) in these places if you fill up but they seem happy to let me have one anyway.
I carried on and at one point a passing lorry filled with gravel seemingly shed half its load all over me, but, at the top of a climb I had a nice short rest from the wind on the way into Saray…
However the big long straight climb out of Saray brought me back down to earth a bit…
As I was riding up this road the heavens opened and it started to rain. Due to the strong icy winds the rain was flying sideways gradually freezing the left hand side of my face. At least as a consolation I got a rainbow…
The rain began to get severe so I decided to pull into the next town, Safaalan, and try and find somewhere to rest. As I was stood in the middle of the street hunched over my handlebars resting I heared a voice shouting “Chai! Chai!”. I look over and see a man poking his head out of a Chai shop and waving me in. These Chai shops aren’t like a coffeeshop, they seem more the cultural equivalent of a local English pub and thus give the impression of being a bit clique and that things will be a bit odd if I walk in in my day glo cycling gear. I couldn’t resist the shelter though and I headed in.
As expected my entrance did draw the focus of the 50 or so old men in the room for a moment but two of them quickly rushed and arranged a couple of chairs around the wood burner in the middle of the room where we sat down and I tried to arrange my gloves and hat so they’d dry a bit. Chai quickly appeared and my attempts to pay were thwarted by a nice man called Mustafa who was evidently paying. I’d made no research about accommodation along this route and, based on the deteriorating weather and my soaked clothes, I thought I should take this opportunity to research where I could stay down the road. We managed to converse enough that I learnt the next hotel was about 45km away in Subasi. I had no choice but to make this a very long day. I said my thanks and road out of town to a few school kids chasing after me shouting the random English words that they knew!
I was now riding back into the rain, which had subsided a bit, but had my spirits raised when I saw the 100km marker for Istanbul. Nearly there! The hills I keep mentioning had still yet to relent and my energy was getting very low and my problematic right knee was starting to go again. A 10 minute burst of hail did not help me either. I kept looking forward to working out how far I’d cycled today as I reckoned I was on course for my longest day so far.
I reached Subasi at sunset, 9 hours 30 minutes after departing with maybe 30 minutes total rest that day. It was certainly my longest day in terms of time. I went into the only hotel in town (£13) and was in the hot shower almost as soon as I was in the room. I popped out to get some hot food and saw the only cafe in town and walked in. There was no food to be seen, just 3 guys drinking Efes (Turkeys only brand of lager), and Efes was the only thing they sold. Sod it. Having a beer on an empty stomach whilst exhausted is not the best idea but I deserved it.
As a note I did go back to that pub with the blacked out windows in Edirne from my previous blog post. It was not that seedy considering the exterior, just a basic bar with a tv with football on and 40 men sat around drinking 500ml bottles of Efes. Which was the only drink available. I chuckled when the barman asked what I wanted because there was only one option, he missed an opportunity to be classy and just serve me without saying a word.
Anyway. After my celebratory beer I was still very hungry and there was nothing in town. I resorted to cooking spaghetti and tuna on my campstove in the hotel, luckily the room had a tile floor. I also realised that the heating was bust and the room was freezing, not a good omen for the cycling clothes I’d just washed and hung up to dry.
Woke up at 6am again, my clothes were still wet but the weather was better after a huge storm passed in the night. I wore my clothes wet as, being synthetic, they still keep me fairly warm when soaked.
I cycled up a small hill to start, only slight headwinds today, and was greeted with a view of Istanbul on the horizon…
Once I then rolled down this hill and through the next town I then saw my first monstrous climb of the day. At least this motorway was virtually empty. In the 30 minutes this climb took only 4 cars passed me…
Once at the top of the climb I was going to take a rest but no. The gang of dogs lurking at the top wouldn’t let me. There were 3 to start and they actually seemed quite friendly, just jogging along next to me wagging their tails. I was about to stop and take a photo when a fourth dog came out of nowhere barking which set them all off so I started to cycle away. More dogs kept pouring out of the under growth and I had 9 on me at one point. I lost them after a turning but when I went to check my map I realised I’d taken the wrong road. As I road back to the junction the dogs were waiting for me. The turning I needed to take was under repair so there was a detour through 6 inch deep mud which I had to slowly cycle through surrounded by dogs with huge trucks trying to pass. Lovely.
I did about 20 uneventful kilometres with lots of massive climbs but was constantly reminding myself I’d be in Istanbul tonight and this leg would be done. I could rest. As I was going down a small descent, which turned left, both of the lorries behind me decided to try and overtake at the same time. This led to one of the trucks being ran off the road by the other and everything then went into slow motion as this truck was perched on the bank on the side of the road so close to tipping over. The driver was on the top side and climbed out quickly to scream at the other driver. I then noticed a passenger get out of the balancing truck on the side UNDERNEATH IT. This is probably one of the dumbest things I’ve ever seen someone do. Why didn’t he climb over to the drivers side to get out? Anyway they were all far to interested in screaming at each other to talk to me and, seeing as there was no damage done, I promptly cycled off turning around to snap a photo of the incident…
As I got close to the city the road did become a three lane motorway but wasn’t too busy although navigating some of the junctions was pretty hairy. The sun really came out at this point and when combined with the high quality tarmac and lack of wind I was flying along, even up the climbs. At the top of each hill I could see the centre getting closer.
The motorway eventually subsided into city roads and I was now getting very excited being so close to my goal of the Bosphorus, the border between Asia and Europe, that all aches and tiredness in my legs evaporated into nothing. I was powering along the streets. I opted to ride down to the Golden Horn (a body of water in Istanbul joined to the Bosphorus) as soon as possible as the terrain would be flat and I would have to follow just one road rather than navigate the centre. I got a nice view of the Golden Horn whilst riding…
I also cycled past the steepest road I have ever seen, 100% gradient!!!
After a 15 minutes of flying along the bus lane on the waterfront, annoying most of the cities bus and taxi drivers, I spotted the Bosphorus bridge in the distance and saw a good spot to grab a photo by the ferry port. My first major goal achieved!
On my way to the hostel I’d chosen I was pushing my bike past the Hagia Sofia when I heard someone shout “Hello!” I turned to see two long distance cyclists. We quickly said our hellos and it turned they’d just spent 4 months cycling here from France and they’d also just arrived! Although they’d taken the possibly wiser move of getting a bus into the city having read many similar accounts to mine. Such a surreal moment as none of us had bumped into any other cyclists in a long time considering how off-season it is.
Once I was in my hostel the first thing I wanted to do was to see how long the previous day had been, had I broken my 120km a day record? A big fat no. I’d only done 105km but it had been the toughest day by far! I decided to build an elevation profile of the route using Google Earth to see just how bad those rolling hills had been…
Pretty bad it seems! Nearly 2,400m ascent in two days with only a maximum altitude of 326m. Whilst the D020 may be a quieter road into Istanbul than the D100, it is certainly far from being an easy route!
I’ll be heading home for a month soon to re-equip and to get some visas in London before heading on into Asia. I hope to do some posts in the meantime about what pieces of gear I am upgrading and why, and there should also be a short post on a side trip to Ethiopia and Somaliland I’m doing at the end of January. Thank you for following on the first bit of this trip, seeing the statistics on how many people are reading these really raises my spirits, see you all soon!
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I also want to divert the interest this trip generates towards helping out a charity that made a big differance to some friends of mine. Samuels Children Charity are a Lewes based charity providing support to families throughout the UK who are currently affected by childhood cancer. I hope to raise the sum of £5,000 from people who hear about this trip to help them continue their work, and to also keep me motivated throughout the challenges this trip will provide! If you’d like to see how the fundraising is going (or even better would like too donate!) then click here.