Film Photography Adventures in Turkey: Bike Camping in Trakya (Thrace) Part I

Introduction

Back in July I went for a long bike ride and camping adventure. During the lockdown days it was nice to think about going away somewhere by myself on my bike with a tent and I started looking up possible locations I could reach from Istanbul. Playing around on Google Maps I found that the Bulgarian border was only about 200km away, and there were national forests and nature parks in that area of Turkey (Trakya, or Thrace). Beğendik, a remote beach at the border looked like a good final destination. Along the way there was Limanköy, where there was a lighthouse, İğneada, which is in a forest rich in biodiversity, and Kıyıköy and Yalıköy, both towns on the Black Sea.

I’ve always had an adventurous spirit, which might be why I’ve spent so much time living abroad. I like stepping out into unknown situations. That’s when interesting things start to happen. I also did not bend to the prevailing winds of the 21st century and begin using a smartphone until after this camping trip, for similar reasons. When you’re always carrying a GPS device and can contact and be contacted by others I can’t help but feel that any attempt to venture into the unknown is shackled.

For this camping trip I wanted to be completely unshackled. From the Google Maps that I’d played around with, I traced maps into my journal for what my route looked like, as I wasn’t going to have a GPS system with me. I took notes of towns and general landmarks I would pass on my way. I planned to ride about 100km per day, reaching the Bulgarian border in two days, and then having three days for my return. I planned on heading out on a Monday and would be back by Thursday or Friday.

None of this was daunting for me at the time. I raced bicycles from 2002-2009, racing professionally for one year and notching up quite a few elite level wins as my team’s sprinter. In the years since I stopped racing bikes I’ve taken up running and have done a handful of half and full marathons. There was even one winter that I decided to do marathon cross-country ski racing, after having been on skis for a week. That this bike-camping adventure I was planning would be physically challenging was not something that I was at all concerned about.

The bicycle that I ride around on in Istanbul is a far cry from the 16-pound, $10,000 carbon-fibre Pinarello I raced as a professional. It’s a 1991 steel Bianchi Advantage hybrid, and to the untrained eye isn’t anything special. For those with a discerning eye for bicycle parts, however, it is an impressive Frankenbike, cobbled together by my older brother with parts that he had squirreled away from various repair jobs he’d done as a bike mechanic. He had put it together with Istanbul in mind: something that looked unassuming, was invincible, and in the event of an accident, could easily be repaired. It weighs about 30 pounds and I’ve nicknamed it “The Buick” for its slow, smooth ride. For those interested in some of the technical details of the many bicycles my brother and I have known, please see: http://chessinthesnow.com/2015/03/879/.

There are endless wormholes on the internet regarding different gear to take when going bike-camping. If you have lots of disposable income you can put together a really light setup. I recently spoke to a friend whose bike-camping bike weighs 30 pounds fully loaded. After assembling all of my gear and loading it onto The Buick my setup was about 60 pounds. This did not include the photography equipment that I was also taking. I took not one, but two vintage cameras with me, and had a heavy backpack in addition to what I had strapped to the bike. On the day before my departure I had difficulty in lifting my bicycle up the stairs to ride around the block and test out what it was going to feel like. At this point I began to have slight premonitions in the back of my head that all of this might be more difficult than I had considered.

The night before I left I shared a picture of my bike with some friends. Murat, who now lives in the USA, was excited about my adventure. He told me that he had family in the area, in Lüleburgaz, and that I should get in touch with them if I needed anything. I had a look at the map to see that Lüleburgaz was quite a ways from my intended destinations along the coast and in the national forests, but told Murat that it was good to know of people in the area.

Day One

I set out on a Monday at about 8am. The route out of Istanbul that had the least busy roads and the least elevation gain took me through the districts of Fatih, Sultangazi and Arnavutköy. I live in the artsy, hip neighborhood of Kadıköy and on my bike rides usually only go up and down the Bosphorus, so in cycling through these more working-class areas I was able to see a different Istanbul from what I usually experience, but which is the norm for millions. As I started to reach the outskirts of the city I began to approach the area where Istanbul’s third airport was recently constructed. My route until I passed the airport was on highways, and changing lanes with my heavy load to avoid exiting vehicles was a harrowing experience. The whole trip thus far had been a long slow ascent with cars and trucks buzzing past me at high speeds.

Around noon I stopped on the side of the highway for a snack
Istanbul’s third airport in the distance

Once past the airport I saw signs for Tayakadın, one of the villages I had noted in my journal that I would pass through. I was relieved to be able to get off of the busy highways and breathe a bit easier on country roads. I sat down at a roadside cafe for a lunch of lentil soup, a salad, and meat and potatoes. I told the curious proprietor about my plans and told him I’d stop by again on Friday on my way back. Inşallah, inşallah, he responded, god-willing.

You see all sorts of things on the side of the road in Turkey

From Tayakadın I weaved my way along peaceful country roads to Durusu, past a lake and I found myself up at the Black Sea, at Karaburun. I’d written Karaburun down as a potential detour, but I knew that it wasn’t on my intended route. I consulted my journal and saw that I had needed to take a left turn after the lake. I went back and forth a few times, and decided that Google Maps must have meant the small dirt road I’d passed a few times. Down the rabbit hole I went. I passed an area where I saw trees in planters. I soon reached a gate and some workers informed me that I’d reached the end of the road. We chatted for a while, and one confirmed that there was a dirt road that continued to Ormanlı village, where I was going. It was a forbidden road, but as I was on a bicycle, that didn’t apply to me. Ah, hayat ne güzel senin için! One of them exclaimed as I set off. Life is very beautiful for you!

The dirt road quickly became sandy and rocky, and I had to navigate some felled trees and a ravine. With all the weight I was carrying, it was slow going. I passed some loggers and dinged my bell to get their attention. Does this road go to Ormanlı, I asked? Sure, they responded, reminding me that it was a forbidden road. But you don’t smoke cigarettes, do you? That’s why it’s forbidden, so it’s not forbidden for you. I was distressed to hear that it was about 35km, though. They confirmed that the shortest way to Ormanlı was this forbidden dirt road. They were curious about what I was doing and we chatted for a while. I could tell by their accent that they weren’t locals either, and sure enough, they were from Adana, in southern Turkey. I pointed out that I was drinking şalgam suyu (a spicy purple fermented black carrot juice, basically pickle juice, and it’s very common in Adana. In lieu of expensive sports drinks, I’ve taken to just drinking şalgam suyu on bike rides.) They noticed that I was drinking the market stuff, and said that if I had some of their homemade şalgam suyu I’d never be able to drink the market swill again. One went into their trailer and came out with two 5L plastic jugs, one with water and one with şalgam suyu. They poured me a glass and cut it with water, handed it to me, and eagerly awaited my reaction. I extolled its virtues, and watched as they filled up my bottle. I bid Recep and Eyüp from Adana farewell and set off.

I love cycling on dirt roads in the states, but I’ve discovered that toprak yolu best translates as an earthen path. Yol can be translated as path or way, and is not necessarily what I understand as a “road.” I held on for dear life on rocky downhills, bouncing and sliding dangerously, knowing how much it would hurt if I fell. The sand and rock path would then turn uphill and my pace immediately slowed to a crawl. I made a few wrong turns that put me up on the coast, and I never really knew where I was. I knew that if I kept the sea to my right, I would be on course. It was a beautiful day, I was on beautiful roads, and I was happy to be out in the middle of nowhere.

I found myself up on the coast
Navigation was proving a little bit difficult. Nothing to be concerned about.
It seemed like a friendly enough dog
This called to mind the famous opening scene in Tarkovsky’s The Mirror

The relief of reaching a paved road was short-lived, as the little dog I’d just taken a picture of started chasing me, nipping at my heels. I tried to keep it at bay by swinging my frame pump as I did my best to get my heavy bicycle up to speed, and passed an ISKI buiding (Istanbul’s water company). An official stuck his head out of the window and started screaming his head off at me. I stopped and he questioned me about how I’d got in, as it was a forbidden zone, how could I have gotten past the gate? What gate, I asked, I didn’t see any gate, what do you mean it’s a forbidden zone?  He called officials at another gate and asked them if they’d seen me come in and what he should do with me. I didn’t have GPS, no smartphone, then he started talking about the Jandarma and MIT (Turkey’s CIA). No no no no no no, I interject, I just want to get to Ormanlı! I got out my journal and showed him my hand-drawn map with all of the villages I was going to pass through. He really didn’t know what to make of me. After some haranguing he gave me some directions to another gate 10-15km away (I was to go straight), and said that it was 4:00 now, and that if I hadn’t left by 6:00 they would send the Jandarma out looking for me.

I set off again but was disappointed to find that the road didn’t stay paved for long. In fact it got worse than what I’d been on previously. I took some photos, but was careful not to dawdle for too long and miss my time cut and have the Jandarma looking for me. I was also running out of fluids and felt a bit of panic rising. The road went on and on. I finished all of my water and şalgam suyu.

Deep within the Forbidden Zone

I eventually saw a gate in front of me and dinged my bell to get the attendant’s attention. What are you doing here, this is a forbidden zone! Apparently I’d arrived at a different gate from the one I had been directed towards, and this official hadn’t been informed of the situation. I explained. He lurched towards the gate and unlocked it. I asked him if he had any water, as I was by now quite parched and in a state of nervous agitation. He told me that Ormanlı was just 3km away and I could get water at a market there. As I left, I asked him to call his buddies to let them know that I’d got out so they wouldn’t send the Jandarma looking for me.

I was glad to be on pavement again and reached Ormanlı after passing some locals walking their cows down the road. I stopped at a market, downed a liter of very sugary lemonade and bought some water. I felt a rumbling down below that required urgency, and found the squat toilets of the local mosque. I pulled down my bib shorts, crouched down and all of the contents of my stomach exploded out of me. After a few surges, fairly certain that it was over and that I could safely proceed, I pulled my shorts back up. The color suggested that Recep and Eyüp’s homemade şalgam suyu had flushed everything out of me. Perhaps I’d better stick with the market stuff, I reflected.

A bit shaken, I got back on the bike. My first camping destination, Yalıköy, was 15km away. I climbed slowly. At this point I was exhausted and I began to be concerned about the time until it got dark. I hadn’t been paying attention to the time, as I’d had my phone off all day, but saw that it was 5:30 when I stopped at the market, which meant I’d been going for about 9.5 hours at that point. This first day was a lot harder than I had expected and I had gone significantly slower than I had planned on. I finally descended down to the village of Yalıköy and followed the signs for the seaside, noting markets along the way. The coastline was a mix of natural beauty and mounds of trash that previous campers had left.

I found a spot on the beach that wasn’t too gross and hurriedly pitched my tent as the sun began to set behind the cliffs. Once my shelter was in place I rushed off to the market for sustenance: boil-in-bag lentils and bulgur, tomatoes and wine. I knew that this part of Turkey was wine country, and noticed some labels I didn’t know and asked about one of them. Çok iyi bir şarap bu, kafan baya iyi olacak! The shopkeeper assured me that it would be effective, even twirling his fingers around his head to demonstrate how good the wine was.

One bag of my gruel was two servings and 1500 calories, so decided I should have two, plus copious amounts of olive oil for fat calories. I quickly prepared my slop as the sky turned varying shades of orange and purple, and after scrubbing my pot and bowl, I took the wine and a Dominican cigar a friend had given me some months back which I hadn’t found the occasion to smoke, and went up closer to the sea.

I drank my wine, smoked my cigar, gazed at the stars and wrote in my journal as the waves of the Black Sea roared against the coast. I was elated, and reflected that this was quite possibly the greatest thing that I had ever done.

Thanks for reading! Stay tuned for Part II, coming soon!