At dawn as I watched the sky slowly lighten and the sun rise over the fields I resigned myself to starting another day. I had heard from Lisa, who had gotten in contact with Murat, who had gotten in contact with his cousin Gökay, and Lisa wrote that Murat assured me that I would be taken care of. Lisa sent me some words of encouragement, suggesting that I try to enjoy myself, have a relaxing morning, sleep in and take the day easy. I didn’t know how to convey to her what it felt like at the Shell station next to the highway after the two previous days and a sleepless night, and that there was no chance of relaxation or enjoyment happening in my present state. I prepared my oats and instant coffee and slowly told myself to get on with it and pack up the campsite.
After being instructed from one of the gas station attendants that the road to Lüleburgaz was a left turn at the third intersection, I resumed pedaling. The road I wanted was clearly marked and I was pleased to find myself on a flat road with a tailwind. This was heavenly after the previous two days of nonstop elevation changes. This part of Turkey is flat farmland and the predominant crop is sunflowers. I’d never seen a horizon so full of sunflowers. The day before I’d thought about stopping for photos but had been too fatigued, both physically and mentally, to seriously consider it. Today, however, I took my time and snapped away. My legs felt fine, and I began questioning my decision the day before to abandon the plan. The left turn to Vize was already haunting me, not 24 hours later. I could totally have made it to the border!
After 35 km on a pleasant country road I had to make a right turn onto a big highway for the remaining 15 km to Lüleburgaz. The road at this point was no longer flat, and with any slight incline in the terrain my legs reminded me that they were, in fact, dead. I didn’t know what to expect in Lüleburgaz and started to think about the amount of money I’d be willing to spend to not have to be riding my bicycle anymore.
Once I got to Lüleburgaz I stopped at a gas station and called Gökay, who asked what I wanted. I said I needed to find a vehicle to take me to Istanbul. He didn’t seem pleased, but told me to wait where I was. I sat on the curb and after a while Gökay called to tell me that he had some business to finish, but that I should wait and that he’d come and we’d go to Istanbul together. I used the time to clean the bike as best I could so as not to get his car too dirty.
Gökay came to the gas station after a couple of hours and we got in the car. I tried to make small talk but Gökay wasn’t very talkative. We were almost 200km from Istanbul and he had to drive back after dropping me off. I told him that the easiest place for me was Bakırköy, as I could get a ferry to Kadıköy from there. We hit the traffic on the outskirts of the city and at the Mall of Istanbul saw the first signs for Ataturk Airport and Bakırköy. Gokay peeled off to the shoulder on the right hand side of the highway, stopped and said he’d drop me off there, and that I could follow the signs the rest of the way.
On the side of a 10 lane highway with traffic zooming past I pulled my bicycle out of the trunk, thanked Gökay, and he drove off. I reassembled my bike and tried to continue, but the lane changes and traffic here were significantly faster, denser and more terrifying than anything I’d seen before. When I saw a section of guardrail completely smashed in I decided to call it quits, and turned off the highway to find a taxi.
I found a taxi rank and all of the drivers present clustered around to watch me disassemble my bike and stuff it into the trunk. They were all very impressed. I then had a typical Istanbul taxi experience. I told the driver that I wanted to go to the Bakırköy ferry port. He suggested that he just take me all the way to the Asian side via the second bridge. No, I insisted, I wanted to go to Bakırköy, as I knew the fare would be three times cheaper that way. Sen bilirsin (you know best). At Bakırköy he reminded me that it was a national holiday and that the boats would all be cancelled. Joanne had sent me the phone number for the ferry lines so I could call and check, but at this point my brain wasn’t firing on enough cylinders to either make a phone call or to handle Istanbul taxi negotiations. I told the driver to keep going to the next port, Eminönü, where there were more commuter ferry options. But when we passed the Avrasya tunnel, which goes under the Bosphorus, I was tempted by how easy it would be if I just rode in the taxi all the way back, didn’t have to reassemble the bicycle, ride the ferry, and cycle the last 5km home, and told the driver to just take the tunnel. He explained that it cost extra, and I agreed. If only you’d told me at the start, it would have been cheaper for you, we could have taken the second bridge! he exclaimed. What can I do, I sighed, it’s just been that kind of a day. I tried to remember how much money I’d been willing to spend earlier in the day to no longer be riding my bicycle. The taxi fare was cheaper than that amount. The driver saw that I recognized the tune on the radio: it was Barış Manço’s Ahmed Bey’in Ceketi, a song about a guy who wears a sports jacket in a village where all the men only wear shirts. The driver and I spent the rest of the drive talking about other Turkish music that I liked.
I got out of the taxi, paid the driver the fare, and unloaded my gear from the trunk. Once inside my apartment, I scrubbed myself in the shower, lay down on the couch, and didn’t move for the next two days.
Upon my return I didn’t want to think about touching the bicycle for a while, and definitely didn’t want to go on another bike-camping adventure. I had been so excited and had told so many of my friends about it, and was embarrassed that I had had to abandon the plan halfway through and call in for help. The embarrassment and trauma passed, thankfully, and I began to be able to think about my trip as a learning experience. Here are some lessons that I took from my first bike-camping misadventure.
The first lesson, which came as a surprise, was that this kind of journey required a different kind of strength than I had anticipated. I went at an extremely slow pace, but considering the route and the heavy load, the effort was never easy. As a result, each day was a slog that drained mind, body and soul. With that in mind, the total daily distance for a trip like this should be kept to a reasonable number.
Also, I needed to buy a smartphone. If I was to go camping with my bicycle and would be cycling through national forests, and especially if it was a place I’d never been before, GPS would be necessary. Not only that, but nobody had a clue what to think of me with my old phone and hand-drawn maps. People looked at me like I was from one of those Old-Believer sects in Russia that had gone into exile, completely missed out on the 20th century, and still thought the Romanovs were in power.
Along with a GPS system, the route should actually be planned. Surprises, which normally add color to life, should be avoided as much as possible when cycling and camping. Variables on an adventure like this are likely to only be problematic and should be controlled as much as possible. On the same topic as the route, elevation gains need to be kept in consideration. Daily totals of 1,500 m elevation gain are manageable with a racing bike, but with a heavy steed, climbing becomes exponentially more difficult. Back-to-back days with lots of elevation gain result in unexpected weariness. With that in mind, the load needs to be as light as possible. That also means that photography equipment should be kept to a minimum.
Another lesson learned from this trip was about fuel and hydration. Şalgam suyu, peanuts and crackers are insufficient sustenance for a multiple day endurance effort. There’s a reason for all of the science behind sports drink powders, gels and bars, and why they are expensive. Basic salt, protein and carbs don’t cut it.
A final lesson, which I know from all of my travel experiences already, was that of course the trip was going to be a disaster. It was the first time I was doing something, and I don’t do things in half-measures. The first time I do something is always a learning experience, so that I can know how to do it better the next time. I remember learning this when traveling through the Balkans 10 years ago, as well as in various adventures with my older brother in Turkey in my years living here. I eventually figure it out, but there’s always a lot of error before I manage to find any success.
I am glad to say that before the summer ended I had a slightly more successful bike-camping trip, again on the Black Sea coast, this time staying on the Asian side of Istanbul. While I can’t say that it was an entirely pleasant experience, as I’ve come to realize that bike-camping is not something that one necessarily enjoys, I can say that I learned from my Trakya misadventure and had a better time of it. But that’s a tale for another day.
Thanks for reading, and I hope you’ve enjoyed the tale! As a reward for making it this far, here are some color photos taken along the way.