16: A winter’s tale (Turkey)

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Sivrihisar – Gaziantep, Turkey (12 – 22 Dec)
Total miles cycled: 3,250 (5,230km)
Thigh status: Lou Ferrigno

Read an edited version of this blog in Cycling World magazine.

So this is how it ends, I think to myself. Sprawled face down on a granite slab, rump in the air, being pulverised by a leathery female sumo wrestler with a troubling sadistic streak. It’s not quite how I imagined it, I have to admit. I’d probably prefer not to be completely starkers, for a start. Or surrounded by a group of equally starkers women, all eyeing me with wary curiosity.

The beautiful, balmy metropolis of Haymana (my luxury apartment on the right). Where dignity goes to die.

I’d probably also prefer if the women weren’t quite so disconcertingly enormous, if I’m honest. This is a little sizest of me, I know – but they truly are enormous. Not tubby. Not even fat. But unashamedly, lumpenly Leviathan; a raw, fleshy orgy of contour and crevasse. They lord over me in the midst of my torment, voluminous and aloof, like a clique of imperial blancmanges.

Why on earth did I come here, I ponder, as I’m wrestled into one particularly undignified contortion. I arrived in the spa town of Haymana just an hour ago, following a week of frosty slogs across central Turkey, and rashly decided to give myself a treat. I opted against a massage – mindful of the fact that every one to date has ended in disaster, including an incident in Uzbekistan that almost certainly should have resulted in some kind of criminal prosecution – and instead punted for the more innocuous-sounding ‘deep clean’. Having now been straddling Maud for nearly half a year, my feeling was that it was probably not before time.

Puncture soon after leaving Haymana, in -3C ice fog. Poor Maud’s tyres are ailing, but no scope to change them until Beirut (a mere 500km away).

It’s a decision both I and the spa drainage system swiftly come to regret. As I’m brutishly scoured and buffed, endless torrents of inky sludge pour into vast swamps on the white tiled floor like some kind of fecal magic porridge. Before a dozen pairs of increasingly alarmed eyes, I morph from brown to grey to red to pink, and lose about two-thirds of my body mass. By the end I am a pale shadow of my former self, lying weak and spindly on my stone plinth like a broiled baby langoustine.

Strange space-age mosque in small roadside village. A kind of tin-foil here’s-one-I-made-earlier job.

Miraculously I survive the ordeal, however. And about an hour later, I’m feeling great. I’ve never felt so utterly violated and wonderfully clean in all my life. Unfortunately, I’m fairly sure my post-spa cleanliness won’t stand much of a chance against the £8 ‘pension’ I’ve booked into, located in a dilapidated tower block with a filthy communal bathroom and impressive range of ornamental body hair. But I vow to enjoy it while it lasts.

I spend my one evening in Haymana with a 20-year-old, Sydney-born Turk, A, who recently moved home to enrol in Islamic studies at Istanbul University. He is keen to undo the ‘bad habits’ of drinking and smoking he adopted in Australia, he tells me, and now prays five times a day. He shouldn’t even be talking to me alone, apparently – the seductive, newly sterilised temptress that I am.

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Next puncture, just three hours later. Maud and I have a falling out.

I tell A that I have a serious issue with women being seen as sacred sex objects to be avoided/protected/demeaned/dominated (delete as appropriate), and he nods sagely. ‘They are different from men, though,’ he says, after a pause. Different meaning inferior, I ask? He hesitates again. ‘Um. Possibly.’

R, a fellow friendly bummler from Washington DC, who has cycled all over the world, including Africa, South America and South-East Asia.

We get on to religion and I am told that this life is just a test for the afterlife. There are seven levels of Heaven, and God tots up your sins when you die to decide which one’s best for you. It’s possible to hang out in Hell for a while until you qualify for the lowest rung of Heaven, A says. Rich people have to wait a hefty 500 years, apparently. However, he’s not clear on what ‘rich’ constitutes, or what happens to nice rich people who work hard and gives lots to charity.

A describes Heaven for me. Everything is ‘amazing’, with constant sex, drugs and alcohol, and seven virgins to cater for every whim. They need to be virgins, he insists, because their vaginas are tighter. That’s also why he wants a virgin as his wife.

Tuz Gölü, central Turkey’s famous salt lake. It’s the second largest lake in Turkey, fed by two streams with no outlet.

I’m beginning to wonder by this stage whether A is the unqualified Islamic authority I was hoping for. He certainly seems unusually preoccupied by vaginas, which crop up a few times during our chat, often without warning. He’s on safer territory where ISIS is concerned. When Muhammad speaks about killing infidels, he means it as a last resort of self-defence, A tells me. ‘The Koran is very clear that you cannot murder or convert someone by force.’

Dreamy Şereflikoçhisar.

I’m somewhat relieved to leave my new friend and retire to my hovel for the night. I sleep badly, vacuum packed inside my sleeping bag, and am out by 8am the next day. It’s now below freezing and my breath puffs thick and foggy in the glacial morning air. After just a few minutes, I find myself high in the clouds, carving my way through an anaemic, watery landscape, barely discernible through the gloom.

And then I get my first puncture. Swiftly followed by my second.

Each one take nearly half an hour to fix, my fingers numb and swollen like frozen chipolatas. By the end, I’m feeling particularly grumpy and go into a nearby cafe to warm up. Here I’m given free tea and a pair of earmuffs by the kind owner, and meet R, a 49-year-old experienced tour cyclist from Washington DC, who cycled here from Budapest. R is a friendly chap, and we decide to ride together to a pleasant, affordable hotel down the road run by the Turkish Automobile Association.

Shoe-shiner in Şereflikoçhisar.

We part ways the next day near Tuz Gölü, Turkey’s vast salt lake. I continue to the town of Şereflikoçhisar, a grey, overdeveloped urban smudge that proves as unattractive as it is unpronounceable, and leave the next day for Ürgüp, Cappadocia. I then get another puncture, realise I’ve run out of patches, fail to find a shop selling any – and, knowing I’ll now never arrive before dusk, jump on a bus.

Selfie after frosty day in the saddle.

It’s a comfortable journey through craggy, russet-red terrain, and I’m picked up at the end by U, my Couchsurfing host. U is a cheery, balding 30-something, who immediately wins my heart by whisking me out for a glorious kebab feast. As we eat, he confirms my belief that Turkey is a country irreconcilably divided. ‘You say Erdogan’s a liar; they say he’s fixed the roads. You say he’s a dictator; they say he’s strong. You say he’s destroyed the legal system; they say he’s created stability. It’s impossible.’

Rose Valley, Cappadocia. The peaks of three volcanoes – Erciyes, Hasan and Melendiz Dağları – covered the plateau with ash 30m years ago, creating the compressed raw material ‘tuff’. This eroded to form the unique ‘fairy chimney’ (giant penis) rock formations.

U tells me about Fethullah Gülen, an exiled Islamic leader who established a vast network of schools across the world, and once had widespread political influence. He and Erdogan, a former Gülen student and ally, fell out in 2013 over allegations that Gülen orchestrated a corruption investigation against the president. ‘Now Erdogan justifies many of his repressive measures by claiming organisations are connected to the Gülen Movement,’ U tells me. ‘He’s a useful scapegoat.’

I leave U the next morning to spend a few days in Goreme. It’s a magical, otherworldly place, clustered with phallic, rose-tinted ‘fairy chimneys’ formed 30 million years ago from the ash of three volcanoes: a kind of Narnia meets Disneyland meets Spearmint Rhino. As it’s close to Christmas, I treat myself to a snug guest-house run by an attentive, swarthy fellow called O, who grills a mean kebab feast each evening and emits a reassuringly gentle hint of lechery.

My quad bike tour guide, a smoking, drinking Muslim who is a great fan of Erdogan. ‘Turkey was a mess, and now look at it,’ he says.

First on my itinerary is a quad biking tour. I get this for a huge discount as tourism is down 80% due to recent terrorist bombings and unrest (I can fully recommend holidaying in alleged ‘atrocity’-ridden areas, where media hysteria guarantees a bargain). The brooding M takes me out, a Muslim who smokes, drinks and dates, and prays once a day. He is a great fan of Erdogan. ‘I used to wake up and my money was worth half what it was the day before,’ he says. ‘Now I can afford things.’

I ask M about ISIS and he repeats what I’ve now heard many times before. ‘They’re murderers. In Islam, you can’t even kill a cat without going to Hell.’

The guest house owner, whose delicious kebab feasts, grilled on an open fire, more than make up for his mild hint of sleaziness.

What is Heaven like, I ask, thinking of my friend A and his genital preoccupations. ‘It has nothing mind altering,’ M tells me. ‘You don’t need it. It’s just your perfect place, forever.’ His is a house on top of a mountain, with a cow and a goat – which, to be honest, sounds deathly dull for a week, let alone eternity, but each to their own.

My Christmas pressie from P. Breathtaking and magical.

I get my own brief taste of Heaven during my second Cappadocia activity: a hot air balloon ride. This is P’s Christmas present to me, and is truly spectacular. Our overcrowded basket drifts up, up, up, high above the clouds in the early morning mist, where fluorescent streaks of pink and blue electrify the sky. It’s magical, mesmerising, and only slightly ruined at the end by the fraudulently mis-sold ‘Champagne’, which transpires to be a distressing mix of Red Bull and apple juice.

Before I leave Cappadocia, I visit a Kiwi friend-of-a-friend, R, a who owns a carpet shop. She arrived here 25 years ago when there were donkeys and chickens everywhere, and no tourists. Now the place is barely recognisable, she tells me ruefully, and ‘anyone with money’ is permitted to build a hotel.

A little taste of Heaven, up high above the clouds at sunrise.

There are no rules here, yet lots of rules, R says. ‘You just need to know them.’ She enjoys the licentiousness of Turkey after the officiousness of New Zealand. Here she can do business in cash, no questions asked. However, she admits the counterfeit notes in circulation can get frustrating.

Delicately drifting through a field of giant phalluses. What better way to spend a morning?

How is it for women here, I ask? ‘It’s getting better, but domestic violence and honour killings remain serious problems,’ R tells me. However, women are usually the dominant force inside the house, she says. And they’re often not as innocent as they seem. Recently, a group of her friends decided to dress up as men and perform an erotic dance with a broom. ‘Everyone thought it was hilarious. But I thought it was deeply pornographic and shocking!’

It’s also possible to use being a woman to your advantage here, R points out. You can get two seats on the bus by refusing to sit next to a man, and ‘for every crotch-grabber, there are four men who come to your aid’. I know exactly what she means. People often forget that with chauvinism comes chivalry: the other side of the patriarchal coin. Sometimes in London, as I’m struggling with a heavy suitcase or opening yet another door for myself, I do wonder if we feminist sorts have pushed this equality thing too far.

Ok, enough of the balloon pictures now (ed).

It’s dropped to -5C outside by the time I leave Cappadocia. Dressed like the Michelin Man in almost all my clothes, I spend the first 30km crawling up a succession of steep hills through a thick, bitter fog. I feel leaden and sluggish, but am spurred on by the knowledge that stopping would mean either instantly freezing to death or being devoured by one of the many neurotic mutts on my tail.

My new cycling outfit (courtesy of Berghaus), which basically involves wearing all of my clothes.

Eventually, after six hours of unremitting dreariness, I stop in a small village called Ovacik. It turns out to be a lacklustre, barren hole of a place, filled with tractors, dung heaps and small cement huts. After a brief search, I discover the entire male population in the café: about three dozen of them, in a collection of leather jackets, flat caps and beanies, some talking, most just staring into space. All turn to me as I enter, and silence descends with a crash. Have I misjudged this terribly, I wonder? Have I stumbled into some malignant backwater where visitors are fed to livestock for sport?

Another baking day as I approach Ovacik, en route to the Taurus mountains.

No, as it turns out. Half an hour later I’m eating a kebab with the local mayor, chatting pleasantly through Google Translate. One of the older men invites me to his family house for the night – an elegant, simple place filled with colourful wall-to-wall carpeting – and I spend an enjoyable evening eating everything they own and being introduced to everyone they’ve ever met. All the older female family members are housewives and stare at me fondly. Do they like Erdogan, I ask? An enthusiastic yes. Am I Christian, they ask? No, I admit. Married? No. I detect a flicker of disappointment, but no judgement. The maternal mollycoddling continues unabated.

The local cafe – aka the local testosterone appreciation centre. My ovaries suddenly feel very exposed.

Central Turkey’s Silicon Valley.

I sleep well in their toasty living room, and leave by 8am the next morning after a feast of chips, bread, jam and olives. The chill continues to curl its spindly tentacles about my bones as street and sky meld into one, a white gossamer ghost. Everything seems weak, brittle, blanched. When the inevitable pfffffft occurs, I half expect it, but my heart sinks all the same. It’s clear that Maud’s in desperate need of new tyres, but she’ll have to wait until Beirut – a mere 500km down the road.

My morale remains low as I climb high into the Taurus mountains, only briefly uplifted by the sprightly whoosh of the Turkish Cycling Federation passing me by. Then, as my arse and thighs start to pulse and smoulder from the strain, the fog suddenly lifts to reveal thrillingly bright blue skies. I turn my face to the sun and feel its warmth for the first time in weeks, its rays dappling my skin like electrolytes.

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Two of the younger, more dynamic chaps in the Ovacik welcoming committee.

The first of several tranches of relatives who meet me at my hosts’ house in Ovacik. A sweet bunch.

The following day, I reach the summit – and narrowly avoid plunging headfirst into the Mediterranean after a gloriously breakneck 50km plummet all the way down to the sea.

Next stop: the Syrian border…!

Follow my journey on Twitter at reo_lowe, Instagram at bexio8 or Facebook at bexbicyclediaries.

See the full picture gallery for Turkey (Anatolian side) here.

Yet another puncture in freezing temps soon after leaving Ovacik. Maud, stay in there, girl!

Complete change in climate as I approach the peak of the Taurus mountains, with soothingly warm sunshine for the first time in weeks. Maud & I get a new lease of life.

 

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15 Comments
  • ben lowe
    Posted at 21:45h, 13 November Reply

    Beautifully written. your constant discomfort tempered by irrepressible wit.
    Ben

    • reol8
      Posted at 11:08h, 17 November Reply

      Thank you, Ben! Very lovely of you to say so x

  • Abi Lloyd
    Posted at 08:51h, 14 November Reply

    Fascinating ! I love reading about your travels and hearing about the real life in the media hyped parts of the world ! Thanks for sharing x

    • reol8
      Posted at 11:09h, 17 November Reply

      Thanks so much, Abi. Really appreciate you taking the time to comment, and v glad you’re enjoying it! Best, Rx

  • Noel Armstrong
    Posted at 10:20h, 14 November Reply

    What an adventure and beautifully written with lovely photos. You have brightened up a dreary day in Lancashire

    • reol8
      Posted at 11:12h, 17 November Reply

      Thanks, Noel, that’s really lovely to hear. In fact, I’m half Lancastrian (my dad is from Bolton) so great to know I’ve got at least one reader up tut north! Do stay in touch x

  • kerem
    Posted at 11:07h, 14 November Reply

    This definetely is a Brit’s blog: it is impossible to understand if you are having a good time, or just miserable!! Please, let it be the first one!!

    Keep going, R!

    • reol8
      Posted at 11:14h, 17 November Reply

      Hah, yes – I’m not sure I could tell myself, actually. I think part of me enjoys a bit of wallowing in misery – as long as there’s a nice cup of tea / plonk at the end of it. Shamelessly British indeed x

  • Angie C
    Posted at 19:24h, 14 November Reply

    I have been following your blog posts for some time and enjoy them very much — although each one I read gives me a small but uncomfortable sense of foreboding that this is going to be the post I read in which something really vile happened to you. Always glad to see that it is not the case. Do wish that the blog posts weren’t so far behind your actual journey though!

    • reol8
      Posted at 11:18h, 17 November Reply

      Thanks so much, Angie, v kind of you to write. Apologies about the huge delay in posting – it’s a very fair point, and entirely down to my inability to multitask in the saddle (esp when the mayhem of the Mid East descended). At least, with the time-lapse, you know I survived to tell the tale! All the best, and thanks again x

  • Andrew Braysford
    Posted at 07:53h, 15 November Reply

    Just found you! Fabulous Adventures, can’t wait to see more. Made my day 🙂

    • reol8
      Posted at 11:25h, 17 November Reply

      Thank you, Andrew, that’s made my day too! Really appreciate the support, and please do stay in touch x

  • reol8
    Posted at 11:24h, 17 November Reply

    Thank you, Andrew, that’s made my day too! Really appreciate the support, and please do stay in touch x

  • Rob L
    Posted at 12:51h, 21 November Reply

    Great! Couple of key things = chipolatas are probably in reality smaller than your normally-sized fingers, let alone your yucky swollen digits. Should have used Cumberlands or at least Saveloys. Secondly – thank you for providing my new preferred tombstone epithet: “A reassuringly gentle hint of lechery”.

    • reol8
      Posted at 15:12h, 21 November Reply

      Those are very good points. I had forgotten the level of sausage expertise among my readership. Please be reassured that all culinary, meat-based metaphors will be careful vetted in the future.

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