Our overwhelming first impression of Turkey has been how utterly friendly and helpful everyone is. Oh and that it is really hilly. Not those day long climbs you get in the mountains where you just have to dig in for the duration, instead these are roller-coaster steep ascents and descents (with intermittent screaming & nausea). But we can’t complain as our energy levels are quickly restored by the kindness of strangers with their horn beeps, waves, smiles, curiosity and offers of free tea.
Our first evening in Kirklareli set the tone, we were having another of those ‘where will we sleep’ moments, when a voice asked from somewhere behind us ‘Do you have a Facebook page?’ Emir had seen us cycle past and then set off in hot pursuit of the lost (most probably bickering) cycle tourers to find out more. We quickly exchanged contacts and he wished us a safe journey. And so the tone was set, through nearly every village and town we have pedalled we’ve been greeted with warmth and enthusiasm. A big change from the indifference, bordering on disdain, of the Bulgarians we had come across.
In Vize we bumped into Bahadir and the newly formed Vize Pedal cycle group. These super, lovely guys had just completed a ride and invited us to join them for tea. We exchanged cycling tales and Bahadir gave us some handy hints of the best route into Istanbul (more on that later!) The camaraderie of cyclists is universal, happy peddaling guys.
Our road to Istanbul passed through pretty towns with minarets and markets. Everywhere the national flag is flown with pride. People are not only friendly with us, there is a general air of kindness here that only starts to ebb slightly as we near the city limits. These are still hilly, forested areas and our wild camps are rewarded with sightings of magical creatures. Rustlings in the undergrowth reveal themselves to be tortoises, blue dragon flies entertain us as we eat our lunch in the dappled shade of a mountain stream, and bugs as big as your hand make us jump as we take down our temporary washing line.
We share this nature with locals who have come from the towns and cities to picnic. They confine themselves to designated picnic sites; fenced in with their bbqs and ball games. When they leave there is a layer of litter that strays beyond the human enclosure. The areas around roadside fountains are particularly prone to litter and it’s hard not to get frustrated. Not everywhere we have been in Turkey is like this, many places are well kept. It seems to be a particular problem when visitors come from afar in pursuit of leisure, there is a temporal trashing akin to what we humans are doing on a global scale. I encourage Ioan to take photos to document this reality but he says ‘people don’t want to see it’. Maybe he is right but I will tell you anyway.
The other thing that strikes us is the militarization of this land. There are training camps, restricted areas, firing ranges, personnel and machinery on the move As we shelter from a threatening storm in a bus stop a young soldier peaks out from the back of an army truck. He gives us a big smile and a friendly salute, I return his smile and raise my hand in the peace sign. His truck thunders on down the dirt road, he is lost in the dust as the darkness masses overhead and my heart is heavy with his future.