In short, Turkey was a delight. But to fit all of our incredible experiences into a concise piece of writing is nigh-on impossible, so forgive us if we go on a bit! We suggest you get yourself a cup of tea, settle down in your chair, this country certainly deserves your time….
We rolled up to the border nervous about leaving Europe, but excited about the adventure that lay in front. Asia called, but before it, the true beginning of our journey along the silk roads, Istanbul.
The city of Byzantium, Constantinople and most recently Istanbul has always been at the crossroads of the world. Trade, religion, disease and empire from all corners of the world have made their way to this great city and then moved on in whichever direction they chose. This continues to this day, due to the unique location that it commands at the border of Asia and Europe along the banks of the busy Bosphorus.
Most recently Istanbul has also held the prestige of being the crossroads of our journey. We had successfully made it from the western frontier of Europe to it’s far eastern border and were now anxious looking at the great expanse of Asia that lay ahead. To celebrate our success, prepare for what lay ahead and enjoy this magnificent city, we decided to stay almost a week exploring the wealth of sights, sounds, smells and tastes that this city had to offer. Staying in a hostel whose rooftop terrace overlooked the Bosphorus strait and was within earshot of the mesmerising duet between the Bue Mosque and Hagia Sofya calls to prayer, we were in the centre of the action, but also the centre of touristland.
Carpets, hamman towels and ‘special price’ dinners (invariably kebabs) were pushed on us constantly as we walked to and from our hostel or through the Grand Bazaar. We had to duck out of the way of selfie-sticks swinging around our heads and fight off tour groups who wanted us to move for their ‘perfect pictures’. Despite this, the beauty of the Iznik tile adorned Topkapi palace, the majesty of the Hagia Sofya, the calm solitude (and free toilets) we found in numerous local mosques and fascinating customs we found across various districts of this sprawling city, had no problem in charming and entertaining us everytime we stepped out onto the streets. We had high expectations for Istanbul and without doubt it lived up to them.
On leaving Istanbul we took twisty roads through forested mountains and vineyards heading towards Ephesus. We spent the night camped in the countryside, the peace only being broken by the call to prayer from nearby villages. We were greeted warmly by two shepherds and in the morning stopped into a village to get a cup of caj (tea). As we pulled in we got the usual stares from the group of men sat outside the cafe (all villages and towns seem to have these men hanging around in groups). We ordered a tea and shook the hands of various members of the group, answered the usual questions about where we are from, trying our best with the Turkish language. We were offered more tea, which we accepted not realising that we would not be allowed to pay for anything. We then asked if they had any food, to which the owner pulled out his own lunch and insisted we ate it. We felt pretty guilty at this point and nibbled on a few biscuits kicking ourselves!
The next thing we knew, a man in a suit turned up-the local headmaster! He bought us more caj and then took us to tour the school. Now we know Ryan is pretty much Ewan McGregor these days, but even Ewan McGregor could not have expected such a grand reception in a tiny village. The teachers were all pulled out of lessons (the children being left to fend for themselves apparently), and we enjoyed more caj with the elated English teacher. Then the whole school was assembled in rows outside for us to address them. Ryan made them all laugh with his bad Turkish and the order quickly dissolved. We spent about half an hour signing various exercise books and scraps of paper. Now the entire population of a small village in Turkey has our autographs on the wall!!
We thought this might be an exception, but as we moved from village to village town to town, we were pulled in for caj and more often than not food. At one point Yunas the parking attendant point blank refused to let us leave his town until we had drank caj with him. We spent a night under the stars sharing a BBQ with a family we met on a quiet backroad, and shared the picnic of a family who pulled over in the same layby as us. If there is anything we want to bring back from this journey, it is to become as generous as the Turkish people. Not many people would offer their local mosque to two strangers turning up on motorbikes in the middle of the night, or fix your motorbike at 7pm then offer you dinner and a bed at their house. But for the Turks this is simply ‘problem yok’, no matter how much or little they have, they are always willing to give.
Talking of ‘problem yok’, we encountered a few problems on our journey, and a simple case of speaking to soon! Driving through the Turkish countryside, we were discussing just how great the trip was, the great weather, the fabulous views, how well the bikes were running, and how soon our luck was going to run out….it seems very soon. That evening, we camped beside the Mediterranean on a secluded stretch of coast, life surely could not have been better. Until Ryan attempted to move Lottie’s bike, and the stand snapped off! This was a very big problem. As mentioned before Lottie is very stumpy, and without said stand, had no way of starting the bike, getting off the bike, moving the bike around..you get the picture. What made this an even bigger problem was that the stand forms part of the frame, and the frame now had a huge gaping hole. On top of this (despite numerouswarnings from Lottie), Ryan stepped on a poisonous , black spiny sea urchin! We spent the night worrying, despite the incredible sunset, wondering where on earth we would get this fixed.
We needn’t have worried, the next day at the nearest small town Mehmet welded the frame there and then, and strengthened Ryan’s, AND his dad took us out for breakfast, all for the price of eleven pounds!! It was simply ‘problem yok’.
We thought we were ‘back in the game’ after solving these problems, and enjoyed a blissful couple of days relaxing in Olympos on the south coast. Probably the only place you can swim in crystal clear waters beside Roman ruins and see fire pouring out of the mountain side all in the same day. We stayed in a treehouse at the marvellous Sabah pension, where we enjoyed huge amounts of incredible home cooked food and fascinating company of journalists and researchers working all over the world.
Leaving Olympos, we drove 60km down the road before Ryan’s bike started making a horrendous rattling sound. Nerves jangling, expecting the worse we pulled over and quickly established this was another Very Big Problem. We called Jonny Bunga (who you may remember is Glasgow’s premier motorcycle mechanic), who told us we needed to get to a garage as soon as possible. Of course at this point an almighty crash of thunder reverberated and it started to pour with rain. Absolutely pour, basically a flash flood. It was about 5pm when we limped into Antalya, thoroughly miserable and desperately searching for some wifi to look up a reputable mechanic. We ducked into a cafe where the owner gave us caj and rang his mate who had a mate who might be able to look at the bike. Aykut turned up half an hour later and we followed him through the torrential downpour to his garage. A bit dubious at first, we quickly realised his skill as he took out the timing chain tensioner, quickly rebuilding it from a used part he had lying around.
It was about 8:30 pm when he finished (can you imagine a mechanic in the UK working that late!) and he insisted we go back to his place for dinner and a bed. After following Aykut, driving helmetless through crazy turkish traffic in the rain, We were greeted with grace by his heavily pregnant wife, despite looking like two drowned rats. We were lent dry clothes and quickly fed, we could not have imagined such a rollercoaster of a day ending any better, tucked up watching the Turkish version of Planet Earth. Thank you so so much to Aykut and Kazben for your hospitality!
From Antalya we headed North making for Ankara to collect our Uzbek visa. The roads were fantastically straight, all dual carriageway, passing through endless plains and rolling hills (more on the roads later in the politics section!). Absolutely exhausted after a 500km drive we noticed the petrol station just south of Ankara had a lovely flat , sheltered piece of grass behind it. Using our best Turkish (and google translate) we managed to secure ourselves a patch on the pristine grass. Able to use the toilets and with a good night and morning caj from the attendant there, we can recommend more people camp at petrol stations!
Collecting our Uzbek visa, which we had applied for in Istanbul was relatively painless. We turned up, gave our passports in, went to the bank with ‘Turkish rambo’ (the most ridiculously manicured man you have ever seen) and headed back to the embassy for the final stamp. In the time it had taken us to go to the bank, the man at the embassy had become VERY angry. As he shouted at everyone, we cowered in the corner awaiting our turn. Finally getting what we needed the Turkish people in the room told us to make a run for it while we still could!Nervous about heading into Ankara because of the recent suicide bombings, we were distraughto hear of the Manchester bombings when we connected to the wifi in the city. Throughout the planning of our trip, Turkey had been the place we had been most nervous about visiting. The recent failed military coup attempting to remove Erdogan, the increasing hostility between the Turkish government and the PKK, alongside the influx of refugees from war torn Syria, have (according to our media) made Turkey a very unstable place. As a result, we found Istanbul empty of Western tourists. Ephesus, a place we had been warned that swarmed with coach loads of westerners, empty. The holiday towns and beaches of the south, deadly quiet. Western tourists have stopped going to Turkey and the tourist industry is on its knees. For us this was heartbreaking to hear and witness. As soon as we entered Istanbul, we felt safe, the police presence is huge, and travelling throughout the country we felt assured that if anything were to happen we would quickly be given shelter and protection by the locals. Granted, we did not travel to the South East of the country, towards the Syrian border, but we can see no reason that anyone should avoid Turkey as a holiday destination-especially at the moment-it is empty and cheap!
One of the highlights of our visit to Turkey, and a must see was Cappadocia. No doubt you have seen pictures of its spiralling rock towers, cave churches and ancient rock dwellings. It was the place Lottie had most been looking forward to, and we had planned to arrive there in time for her birthday! The landscape began to change as we dropped off of the high plains and headed down into a valley. Gradually the land began to sprout strange rock formations, and cave houses began to appear. We stayed at the wonderful Shoestring guest house in Goreme. For 8 euros a night we got a dorm bed in a cave, access to a rooftop swimming pool with incredible views, and the best breakfast we had ever eaten. In fact, on her birthday morning, Lottie was simply overwhelmed by such a treat in such an incredible place and began to cry! We spent her birthday hiking some of the valleys and camped up high enjoying a picnic tea watching the sunset.
We rose at 4am, and wrapped in our sleeping bags, watched as the silent sky began to fill with hot air balloons. It was magical, the occasional roar of the balloons lifting them higher was the only sound for miles around.
Moving East the change was notable. We started to see many pro-Erdogan banners, and even pulled into a town where everything was named after him. Erdogan supermarket, Erdogan hairdressers, petrol station, it was the equivalent of Tescos rebranding as Maycos (By the way what on Earth is going on with the politics back home!!???)! Erdogan is from conservative Rize in the north of Turkey and they love him so much they have named a university after him! It was strange to see a living president venerated so much, and in such contrast to the opinions in more liberal West of Turkey. Erdogan is also to blame for the long straight, tarmac roads, as he continues with his plan of modernising Turkey, giving each city an airport and making every major road a dual carriageway.
Ramadan had also began and perhaps this explained the diminishment in the offers of caj as we stopped in towns and villages. Camped in the countryside one night, we had our first experience of being ‘moved on’.
Despite having been told by a local shepherd it was fine, the ‘police’ turned up just after sunset, as we were eating our dinner. Four young guys with rifles jumped out of the car, leaving the old fat guy who was clearly in charge sat in the back giving orders. Apparently camping where we were was forbidden. We explained our situation, asked if we could move to the village, leave early in the morning, but they were insistent. It was for our ‘own protection’ that we pack up immediately and ‘go to a city to stay in a hotel.’ We were not going to argue with a bunch of guys with guns, so angrily and as the rain began to fall we started the arduous task of packing our things. In the rush, darkness and wet our bikes slid around on the muddy road, and Lottie totally lost control, careering off the road into a large bush. It was a relatively bad fall, but no serious damage was done, keen to get away we picked up the bike and drove about 20km to a remote village. Luckily our bikes are not discreet and as we roared into town the local ‘sheriff’ spotted us. Using google translate, and clearly a bit desperate, he took pity on us, and offered us a place to stay in the old mosque. His family fed us despite having only just broken fast and being ready to bed, and we spent an evening being charmed by their daughter who’s English was impressive.
Travelling along the Black Sea coast, we were excited to be heading towards Georgia, but absolutely gutted to be leaving Turkey. We had totally underestimated the effect it would have on us. From the towering minarets of Istanbul, the haunting calls to prayer over empty countryside, stunning beaches, history you literally trip over as you walk through towns and hillsides, and the most generous people in the world, Turkey blew us away. In Turkey you can choose to cruise over smooth tarmac following the Med, or pick your way over gravel tracks in the mountains, you can stay in a cave house in Cappadocia or in a homestay in the remote countryside. It has everything you could ask for and more. We loved it and cannot wait to return-see you there!?