13 Nov 16: A winter’s tale (Turkey)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.’
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.
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.’
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.
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.
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.’
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.
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.’
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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…!
See the full picture gallery for Turkey (Anatolian side) here.