I awoke groggily at dawn and watched the sunrise from my tent.
I consulted my hand-drawn map to confirm that I needed to just follow the coastal road I’d been on and I would find my way into the Çilingöz national forest. I climbed up from the seaside before making a long descent into the woods, and passed a guard who warned me that the road was going to turn to dirt for about 15km.
As I bounced and slid down the hills, slogging up when I could pedal and getting off to push the bike when I couldn’t, I remembered what my map had told me about day two. I would eventually have to go up a long, gradual 400 m climb, but that in total I was looking at 1,500 m of elevation gain for the day. I remembered that before I got to the long 400 m ascent (and subsequent corkscrew descent) I had a series of short ups and downs for a long stretch. That I was making up the rest of the day’s elevation gains all on this rocky/sandy two-track was an uninspiring realization. The sun was beating down and I took frequent breaks to sit in the shade, eat crackers, drink şalgam suyu and wonder how I was going to complete the day feeling like I was.
The earthen path finally ended and I could either go right and down, or left and up a very steep hill. Kıyıköy, my halfway point for the day, was at the seaside, so I went down. At the bottom of the hill I found not Kıyıköy but another national park entrance, and a guard who laughed at my exuberant frustration in learning that I’d gone the wrong way. I slogged back up the hill, sweating and cursing, and then descended to a beautiful valley and cycled up a stream to the fishing town of Kıyıköy.
I passed shacks that had picnic tables and advertisements for fresh fish and went towards the beach, but once I got there decided that I was too exhausted to think about taking my cameras out to take photos. I was too tired to think about anything. I went to the nearest fish restaurant shack, Erkan’s place, and ordered a bass, salad and a beer. I sat down and thought about my situation. I wondered if I’d got in over my head, and was pretty sure that I had, knowing what I felt like and having a vague idea of the perils ahead. I was beyond exhausted. More concerning than surviving the day, though, was the inevitable return to Istanbul. I couldn’t retrace my steps like I had intended, as much of the preceding day had been through the unexpectedly forbidden zone. The dumb foreigner/feigned ignorance card wouldn’t work a second time, I didn’t have GPS to try to figure out a different way back, and the big highways on the outskirts of Istanbul are a death wish on a bicycle even when the mind and body are in working order.
I started to think if I knew anyone in Istanbul who had a car and wouldn’t mind driving out to the Bulgarian border to rescue me. My friend Joanne’s boyfriend Volkan has a car, and I knew that they had been out in this area before and liked it. I called her and asked if she and Volkan wanted to go for a short holiday in Trakya. I was there on my bike already, and then maybe I could ride back with them? Alas, it was Tuesday, they were both working and couldn’t swing it, but Joanne was both amused and concerned about my predicament. We agreed to be in touch about updates on my adventure and what I decided to do.
Erkan, the owner of the fish restaurant, only had two teeth so he was a bit hard to understand. He sat down at my table and asked me lots of questions, grilling me about my love life and what I thought of Turkish girls. I asked how long it was to Limanköy, my next camping destination. 90km, Erkan told me. I stared into the distance. It was 3:00. I had a long climb and then a long descent through the forest. I briefly entertained the thought of camping in Kıyıköy, but it was too much of a town and not enough of an empty beach like I wanted, so I remounted my bicycle. Erkan ran inside and came back with some notes for me, as I couldn’t save anything into my phone. He gave me his phone number in case anything happened, and warned me about snakes in the forest. He also gave me a hand-drawn map of my route. It contained two lines: go straight until I see a sign for Kızılağaç, then turn right.
I climbed up through Kıyıköy and continued to climb after I left it. It was the hottest part of the day and I was sweating buckets. I tried to reach for my biscuits in my pocket but found that my backpack had crushed them against my back, and considering how heavily I was perspiring, they had become soggy crumbs. The longer I climbed the worse I began to feel. I felt like I was either going to vomit, start to cry, or both. I began to realize that I was probably dangerously dehydrated, as it was very hot, I was lightheaded and had the chills. As much as I hated the long climb, I was also dreading what was coming next, a long, winding descent through the Longoz national forest. I hadn’t had good luck with the roads through national forests at this point, I was completely drained, and time was ticking. I wasn’t going to cover 90km in a short amount of time and the day was quickly going to be over.
I passed many intersections and began to wonder if one of them had been my turn, but finally my right turn to Kızılağaç was at the end of the road. To the left was the town of Vize, which I had noted in my journal as a place that I might like to noodle around to take photos if I wanted to explore beyond my initial plan, as Vize dates back to the Romans and has an old castle and theatre. I had a dilemma: turn right, continue the plan to get to the Bulgarian border and do everything like I wanted and had planned, or turn left and start to figure out how to get myself out of what I’d gotten myself into. It was a heavy decision, a memorable intersection. Wounding my pride but more concerned about the situation, I abandoned the plan and turned left, assuming that it was the direction with the least bad outcome.
I stopped at the market in the nearest village for water and şalgam suyu and further considered my options. I called another friend in Istanbul, Lisa, and asked her to get in contact with Murat in the USA, to ask him to get in contact with his family in Lüleburgaz, to see if there was anyone who could possibly give me a ride back to Istanbul. I assured her that I would buy a smartphone as soon as I got back to Istanbul. I had the shaky chilled panic that comes with dehydration and exhaustion and tried to sound as normal as possible. She told me to keep my phone on and that she’d let me know what she heard.
Vize was another 35km away. I found a field where I laid my bike down and changed out of my sweaty crumb-encrusted jersey and put on the extra one I’d brought. I had a sit, ate some peanuts and rehydrated before continuing. Most of the next 35km was through long, steep rolling hills and forest, before becoming a fast winding descent, and I had arrived at Vize.
All of my social interactions up until this point had been pleasant, for the most part. I had been met with interest and curiosity, people wishing me well or concerned for my welfare. The people in Vize were less receptive. I was met with hostile stares by men sitting in teahouses, and firm refusals when I asked about suitable places to set up my tent. One person told me to go ask at the police station to be sure I wouldn’t get into trouble. At the municipal building a clerk gruffly told me that no, there was no place like that in Vize. The sun was beginning to go down. I decided to leave Vize. As I rolled out of town, I saw a sign informing me that Istanbul was 165 km away. Rather than continuing to roll down the road until dark and camp on the side of the highway, I stopped at a Shell station and talked to the attendants. They pointed to a few pine trees at the back of the station, and said I could put up my tent there.
I pitched the tent in the trees at the gas station next to the highway and rode back in to Vize to buy the same gruel I’d had the night before. I sat in my tent and tried to shovel it all in my mouth but was in too much despair to finish it. The contrast between my present misery and the elation of the night before was more than even I could have predicted. It felt like someone else had sat on the coast under the stars. I fell into an exhausted, nervous slumber.
I didn’t sleep for long, though, and was kept awake for most of the night by the incessant barking of stray dogs and trucks buzzing past on the highway. Occasionally throughout the night the dogs approached my tent and barked until I shouted at them or turned on my flashlight and charged from the tent. It was a restless night.
Thanks for reading, and I hope that you enjoyed Part II. Stay tuned for the last installment, part III, coming soon!