By Nicola ‘Raz’ Huxley
As the heat of summer arrives in Istanbul and the masses head off to their summer retreats, I decided it was time to pack everything onto my trusted bicycle and go for another adventure in some new parts of Turkey. I have ridden along the Black Sea coast on my way to Georgia, Azerbaijan and on through Central Asia before, so this time I decided to head to the south of Turkey to explore some new regions. In early June, I took the short ferry ride from Istanbul to Mudanya, where I rolled out of town and up into the hills separating the charming coastal town from the former Ottoman capital city of Bursa. Ignoring the strain the sudden uphill gradient was having on my out-of-shape legs and body, I was instantly refreshed by the surrounding greenery. Rows of olive and various fruit trees covered the hillsides as the Marmara sea, and its coastline, grew ever distant below and behind me.
I was heading to a town west of Bursa where I was to be hosted for the night by members of warmshowers.org. This online network; I believe, is a best friend of all cycle tourists as it offers weary cyclists a place to stay and (as the name suggests) a warm shower at the end of a day in the saddle. My hosts for the evening were a lovely couple, eagerly awaiting the arrival of their first son who, although not cyclists themselves, had signed up as hosts because of their love for the outdoors and meeting new people. They truly enjoyed hearing the stories and adventures their guests brought with them. We spent a lovely evening eating the mother’s freshly prepared enginar (an artichoke dish, a specialty of the Bursa region), sharing a cold beer, and recounting hikes, rides, and the people we had met both in Turkey and abroad. To date, they have hosted cyclists from Korea, America, Spain, and the UK and I was envious of their stories of hiking around the Norwegian fjords and the mountains of Georgia.
The next morning, after a warm good-bye, they headed off to work and I pedalled south. Over the course of two weeks, I covered 750 kilometers, more often than not taking the scenic roads; those generally have lighter traffic, but can be very hilly. My route (see map here) took me through Orhaneli, Tavşanlı, Çavdarhısar, Gediz, Pamukkale, Gölhısar, a small village called Seki, and eventually to a remote plateau dominated by Girdev Gölü in the Ak mountains. Along the way I rode through thick pine forests, interspersed with small villages and even smaller farming communities. As I slowly weaved my way up the hills, straining my leg muscles to turn the pedals, I was often followed by the beeping of car and truck horns as vehicles passed me. I was never sure if these beeps were those of support or annoyance, but every now and then there was a ‘thumbs-up’ stuck out the window or a big smile from someone coming in the other direction to spur me on.
When the light began to fade in the evenings, I would start looking for places to put my tent up for the night. There was an idyllic riverside spot, concealed from the road by a bank of trees and bushes, that was just far enough away from some marsh land where a cacophony of frog calls erupted as the sun went down. Another time I found a grassy meadow, just behind a small hill that looked out over more forest-covered slopes away to the horizon.
The following day I was nearing Aizonai (a Roman site that had been recommended to me by a shopkeeper, but not before I had misunderstood and thought he was insisting I go to Arizona) on the outskirts of Çavdarhısar when massive, black rain clouds started forming on the horizon. As they came closer, a huge crack of thunder directly overhead had me pedalling off down the road in an attempt to escape the incoming rain. But in my haste I lost control on a patch of wet road and before I knew it the bike was crashing to the ground and my left knee was hitting the asphalt. The fall hurt, but thankfully didn’t do any major damage. Still, I needed to make fix up both myself and the bike, so I limped past the historic Temple of Zeus at Aizonai and went in search of some ice in the sleepy farming town. My search led me to the pharmacy and, after explaining my story, I was invited to sit with an ice block on my knee and a glass of çay in my hand. An elderly gentleman came in to collect a prescription and asked about the “yabancı,” and my story was told again.
The next morning I went and visited Aizonai properly and strolled (with a slight limp still) around the wonderfully intact and well preserved remains of a Roman temple, crypt, hamam, agora and theatre spread among tumble-down farm buildings. The afternoon was then spent in the surreal surroundings of petrol fumes, revving motorbike engines, tug-of-war competitions and motocross racing on a dirt track. It turns out the mayor is a motorbike fan and the spectacle had brought together a throng of bike enthusiasts, amateur and semi-pro riders from around the region, curious local farmers and some slightly bewildered women of the town. As the afternoon drew on, it was time to say my farewells to the people of Çavdarhısar who had so generously offered up the strange mix of hospitality, ancient Roman settlements and dirtbike racing within the space of 24 hours.
Around Uşak and Denizli the landscape changed into much more open farmland with huge fields of wheat and vegetable crops. The sides of the road were full of wild grass and beautiful colored flowers. On another evening, I had tea with a man and his son from Konya. They had travelled to the region with their harvesting machine to cut the wheat in a few days time. He explained that afterwards they would probably follow the harvest season to Azerbaijan and find more work there. They were sleeping in their car, waiting for the harvest to start. It struck me as a very hard life and I felt apologetic when explaining my trip through Turkey was a holiday. In other fields I saw a pair of men cutting the grass by hand with smooth, steady strokes of their scythes as they worked their way, in unison, through the grass. Elsewhere local farmers and families were working their small plots by hand, hunched over in the warm midday sun, toiling away at the earth. A return to an often forgotten way of life, where hard graft puts food on the table.
As I came into the Denizli region and closer to Pamukkale, the fields gave way to rows and rows of grapevines and fruit trees. I stopped by another ancient site at Tripolis, about 30 kilometers from Pamukkale. These equally impressive Roman remains were totally deserted, except for a small group of archaeologists working on them, one of whom gave me a personal tour. I took a couple of days rest in Pamukkale to join the hoards of tourists visiting the beautiful natural phenomenon of the calcium travertines and the impressive remains of Roman site of Hierapolis. An industrious elderly hotel owner offered me a space for my tent in the shade of an apricot tree next to the hotel swimming pool where I happily bathed my tired muscles day and night. Leaving the tourists behind – and being photographed by a bus load of them as I cycled out of town – I continued on my way south and towards the Akdeniz mountains. Along the way, I was invited to join the family for Iftar as they broke their fast for the day. The mother was very concerned about my comfort in the tent and insisted on giving me an extra mattress and cover (to add to my air mat and sleeping bag) for the night, so I slept soundly, until the Ramazan drummer came by!
After a couple more hard days cycling I entered the foothills of the mountains and started climbing. I reached the last village before the climb up to the plateau on the evening of the summer solstice. I sat next to my tent in a small field on the hillside watching the sun set over the mountains in blissful peace, soaking up every last minute of the longest day of the year. One more final push was required the next day to cover the 18 kilometers of dirt road that leads up over the mountain ridge and down to Girdev Yayla. This remote and tranquil pasture land will now be my home for the next few weeks as I volunteer at the lakeside retreat of Girdev Kamp (via the website workaway.info). Here, there are just a handful of small houses, a few shepherds who watch their sheep as they graze on the pasture and endless views. Nature’s soundtrack is the wind in the leaves of the trees and the chatter of birds in their branches, interspersed with the bells from the herds of sheep. At night the frogs around the lake can be heard in full voice and the rest is gentle silence. But more about that another time, after my legs have had a little rest and I have slept well in a real bed for a few nights!
You can see more about my previous journeys by bike at razistan.wordpress.com