Pushing On: Central Turkey to the Black Sea

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Leaving my friends in Turkey

Leaving my friends in Turkey

I pedal away from Istanbul on a set of new wheels,  and a few extra pounds of energy. It has been a full month since riding a loaded bicycle and I feel the familiar feeling of balancing 4 panniers and two top bags. As I head up the street I begin to wonder if my tires are low or if I am dragging something, but continue on and slowly pedal beside traffic. While in Istanbul I actually had the opportunity to rid myself of several nefarious items (mostly war relics from Sarajevo) and after repacking was able to get an accurate weight of Gabriella with all the gear. 54 KG (130 pounds) This is a relatively light weight and I am glad as I pedal through the warm temperatures and rolling hills of Central Turkey.

Turkish plateau, 1500 meters, rolling hills and dry dusty roads

Turkish plateau,  elevation 1500 meters, rolling hills and dry dusty roads

It is odd, my muscles at first didn’t seem to remember pedaling a heavy bicycle and on several occasions I felt so fatigued I wondered how I would go on for the day. I stop every 20-30 km to buy water, and practice my Turkish. The store keepers are almost always grumpy and bothered by me drinking liters of cold water in their presence. To me it seems that they spend the whole day suffering over fasting (Orich) and thinking about what to eat at Iftar. Ramadan is to remind people of their devotion to god, and to give them an opportunity to practice, but I am yet to experience a person who embodies this.  A good way to piss off a lot of devotional Muslims is to take a full loaf of bread and make a huge peanut butter and jelly sandwich, then eat it in the town square. I actually was bold enough to do this because I felt that the temptation was part of the practice, but in the conservative city of Bolu I was told by several people not to eat in public.

Local Turkish tea, served in its traditional glass and saucer. One great thing about Ramadan is that restaurants don't bother you to order food, you can actually rest in one and order nothing

Local Turkish tea, served in its traditional glass and saucer. One great thing about Ramadan is that restaurants don’t bother you to order food, you can actually rest in one and order nothing

In the evenings the local grocery stores are packed with hungry Muslims buying last-minute items. When the evening call to prayer sounds the streets become empty, even traffic seems cease, soon after the sound of people eating (forks and plates clanking and glasses clinking) can be heard throughout the town. On my first night on the just after the call to prayer I found a clearing of tall pine trees that looked quiet enough to sleep in. With little energy I found a flat spot near a local trash dump, pitched my tent and after retiring noticed a pungent odor, “what the heck kind of trash smells like that” I asked myself? It smells like a rotten aquarium tank!! I sniffed around and discovered to my amazement that the fetid odor was coming from the tent! To my amazement I realized that  I had forgotten to let it dry after my last night camp in the rain. The tent had been sitting wet inside a plastic bag for a month! Oh well, I was too tired to care and slept peacefully to top of years of accumulated trash.

Not trash camping, a nice spot near a quiet brook

Not trash camping, a nice spot near a quiet brook

After finally leaving the urban sprawl of Istanbul I climbed several thousand feet to a plateau of rolling hills and dry pine forests. Traffic is tame but I am constantly honked at by excited travelers and bored lorry drivers. Many trucks have custom horns and I often hear tunes similar to “La Cucaracha” blasted while passing. The open country brings back recent adventures and beckons me to discover its beauty. Wild camping is more than plentiful and on several nights I camped on dry stream beds and listened to babbling brooks. Each morning is filled with procrastination as my extremely sore body lounges around till noon, looking for excuses to take a day off. There is too little water to spend a day in nature and the sun is by far too hot during mid day, all I can do is push through the tough times.

Local windmill

Local windmill

After 4 to 5 days my body becomes accustomed to life on the road. My muscles no longer ache at night and seem to have built up reserves. There is nothing more than wilderness between towns and before camping I often have to ride any extra 20 km to a town to pick supplies, then another 10 km to a remote camping spot. All in all, the terrain is great as I never have to travel more than a km off the main road to find a secluded camp.

More quiet fields to camp in

More quiet fields to camp in

I am riding east through central Turkey until I reach the city of Merzifon where I will begin my journey north and meet up with the black sea. I will then following the cool coastal road all the way to Georgia and proceed from there to Azerbaijan. My Azerbaijan visa has given me much hassle, and in the last few days I have spent countless hours on the phone talking to confused personnel. The 20 day Azerbaijan tourist visa required a wire transfer to the embassy’s off shore account in the British Isles, when my US bank saw the transfer they blocked it and froze my account saying that the funds might be used/sent to Iran. I tried on several occasions to explain that Azerbaijan is totally a different country and that it is hundreds of miles from Iran but somehow a red flag was placed on my account, the Patriot Act was invoked and now all I can do is wait. Luckily I have some Turkish lira, (make sure to always have cash with you on tour!!) even with a new bank card (which I recently had to go through the hassle of having expedited) I would still be unable to access my account. The processing time for the visa is several weeks meaning I might get stuck in Georgianstan for a few weeks. There is always exploring to do but I would rather spend the time in Uzbekistan or Kyrgyzstan. Things will work out one way or the other! I will write again from the temperate coasts of the Black Sea.

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Randonneuring Ramadan

 Fast, light weight, long distance, self-sufficient cycling, during the holy Muslim month of fasting and self-reflection.

Quiet streets and restaurants during afternoon fasting

Quiet streets and restaurants during afternoon fasting

The Islamic holy month of Ramadan (Ramazan in Turkish) began a few days ago on June 29th. During this time all practicing Muslims observe fasting (all liquids and solids) and sexual abstinence during the hours of dawn to dusk. Ramadan is one of the 5 pillars of Islam, and during the summer days are close to 17 hours.  A typical day begins with Suhoor the predawn meal before Fajr (3:30 am) the first prayer, followed by  fasting until Maghrib (8:40 pm) the evening prayer. Practitioners usually wait at the table till the completion of the ezhan (call to prayer) then say a short prayer and begin Iftar the evening meal. (The exact times change and vary due to location but are the actual times these events will be practiced in Istanbul tomorrow, the 4th of July).

Stacks and stacks of Simit, the Turkish doughnut left untouched during Ramadan

Stacks and stacks of Simit, the Turkish on the go breakfast/snack left untouched during Ramadan

Traditionally Iftar, begins with eating a few dates. I have heard that this is symbolic and goes all the way back to the time of the Prophet (pbbh).,  This is to remind those who fast that the body does not need as much food as the mind desires. Other than dates there is the traditional Ramazan Pidesi, thin, oven baked bread, sold fresh and hot throughout the city in the late afternoon and early evening. (Certain bakeries are widely known for their Pidesi and long lines begin as early as 5 pm). Many women and home makers begin preparing for the evening meal early in the day and spend most of their time shopping for ingredients and cooking.

Fresh, hot Ramazan Pidesi from the bakery down the street, Suadye distric Istanbul

Fresh, hot Ramazan Pidesi from the bakery down the street, Suadye distric Istanbul

Depending on the location and time of day, many restaurants and coffee shops can be completely deserted. In some areas like the fundamental districts of Fatih and Uskudar it feels almost as if the city is asleep. In contrast in the western shopping districts no observation of Ramadan fasting can be witnessed.  In many cities throughout Turkey the Iftar evening meal is paid for by the government with booths, tables, chairs and lighting set up on street corners. I will be looking forward to these meals as I pedal east.

Velocity Wheelset

The long-awaited Velocity Wheel set

My new wheels have arrived!! Finally, after a long day at customs and the help of my two fantastic hosts, Semra and Rich I have my “zombie proof” wheels, These are said to be the strongest man has to offer in terms of cycle touring and I quickly noticed that the new wheels weight substantially more than the last set. Unfortunately this extra weight will slow my pace when trying to escape from flesh-eating zombies. (I am a little unsure as to what they meant by zombie proof). Due to the time spent waiting for the wheels my route through Turkey has changed. I have now decided to pedal north along the Black Sea directly to Georgiastan. This will give me plenty of time to explore the exotic lands of the 4 Stans; Kazakh, Uzbek, Kyrgyz and Tajik before crossing the Pamirs into China.

Richard with Imam in Lalei Camii

Richard with Imam in Lalei Camii

I am all set up and ready to hit the road again, I have a visa for Azerbaijan which begins on July 28th and because of some fantastic diplomatic relations I can now travel to Kazakhstan visa free!! I am sad to leave my new friends. I have gotten so used to their company, that I have almost forgotten what things are like on my own. I have learned so much from them and even had my Vedic Astrology birth chart analyzed. I have felt this way with several people on this trip, the most recent being with Ljubinka and Nino on the island of Krk in Croatia. I adapt quickly and that there is so much more awaiting me on long dusty sweltering roads to Central Asia. I leave on Saturday. One year ago tomorrow I was partying at a BBQ in Marfa, Texas! Enjoy Ramadan!!

DCIM104GOPRO

Quiet religious neighborhoods of Fatih and Uskudar during Ramadan