After bicycle touring across Northern Greece at a much faster pace than we are used to we arrived at Kipi, the Greek/Turkish border, on the 20th December, leaving us 4 days and 350km to get to our CouchSurfing hosts in Istanbul if we wanted to arrive in time for Christmas dinner... we would have to get a move on!
We were both a little nervous and excited while queuing for our Turkish visas, simply because it was the first visa that we had had to obtain since our trip began. However we needn't have worried, the hardest part was actually finding the pokey little hole in the wall that houses the chain smoking man that can issue you the visa. Once located, you simply pay him £10 each (he even accepted the last of our Sterling cash) and he sticks a rather unimpressive sticker in your passport and exclaims "Welcome to Turkey!".
It was somewhere in the middle of the no-man's land between Greece and Turkey that we met a truly inspirational chap, a 65 year old Japanese man who had walked, yes WALKED from his homeland and was about to enter Greece. Unfortunately due to language complications we struggled to catch his name, but he did manage to communicate to us that the road to Istanbul was hilly, dusty and busy... Great!
To be honest, we had already heard a great many horror stories about cycling into Istanbul. Many of the cyclists that we had met in Greece were full of useful tips and warnings while many of our favourite cycle touring websites have detailed accounts of personal experiences and lengthy discussions about the best way to arrive in Taksim square alive and unharmed, it seemed to us that the most sensible route would be to catch a ferry, bus or train into the second biggest city in the world.
However, you may have realised by now that we don't often take the sensible route, and so here is yet another website listing the tips, warnings and route of two cycle tourers who made it into Istanbul and lived to tell the tale.
After crossing the border we came almost immediately to Ipsala, a small town which apparently has nothing to offer but a few very cheap hotels. Just outside the town the road began to undulate just as our new Japanese friend had warned us that it would, it was a long, sweaty ride to Kesan where we had arranged to stay with a CouchSurfing host that night.
Navigating Kesan was an almost overwhelming challenge, we arrived in the late afternoon and realised, very quickly, that we knew absolutely no Turkish. This shouldn't have come as much of a surprise, we haven't know the language of any of the other countries that we have visited either, yet somehow we have always managed to find the city centre whenever we have looked for it.
After several failed attempts to ask for directions and (correctly) guessing that "Sehir Merkezi" means Town Centre it was with some dismay that we realised that our host for the evening was actually another 10kms away. Not in Kesan but the next village along. The sun was beginning to set on us as we forlornly looked on down the long road in the general direction of our host when a motorcyclist overtook me and pulled in to stop directly in front of us. Tired and overwhelmed, we were both about to curse him for cutting us up like that as he took off his helmet, smiled and chirped "Are you OK? Do you need somewhere to stay?". Relief! It seemed that all of the stories of Turkish hospitality and friendliness that other cycle tourers had regaled[?] us with were about to become true for us!
It turned out that Rahmen (our saviour) was also a keen cyclist and a member of the warmshowers website, lived in the centre of Kesan and was happy to host us. After chasing him through the labyrinth streets of Kesan in the early evening dusk we settled into his downstairs apartment and began to savour the fact that we had finally arrived in Turkey... It was a good feeling.
The next morning we set off early and were immediately consumed by thick fog and after just a few turns we were completely lost. We cycled around rather aimlessly for a while (at one point Natasha even said "This can't be the right way, where are all the houses?" Only to be proven immediately wrong as several buildings suddenly appeared out of the fog, just a few feet from where we were standing), before finally accepting that our situation was rather ridiculous and finally asking for directions, by which I mean saying the only Turkish that we knew, "Sehir Merkezi", over and over again until somebody understood what we were trying to say... We had been cycling the wrong way entirely.
From Kesan we continued along the E84/110, the main highway to Istanbul. The road continued to undulate and the surface was less than perfect, meaning that I got yet another puncture. While I was fixing the puncture and somehow ruining the thread on my front axle, Enzo, another cycle tourer, stopped to talk to us and we soon realised that we had narrowly missed each other a number of times over the past few months while cycling through Albania and Greece and so it seemed obvious that we should cycle together for a day or two.
We had already arranged to stay with Ahmet, another CouchSurfing host in Tekiradag that evening and so we asked if it was OK for Enzo to stay with us aswell. Not only did Ahmet readily agree to this, but he also delighted in taking us for a whistle stop tour of his town, including the area's famous kofte, rakia and village breakfast.
Enzo was heading to a dairy farm near Cerkezkoy where he was volunteering for a month, and so we finally left the E84/110 and cycled up the much quieter (although still undulating) 567 in the hope that the farmer would offer us a place to camp for the night. I think the farmer was a bit perplexed by the idea, and maybe a little worried about two strangers wondering around a working farm, but he eventually relented and allowed us to feed the newly born calves and stay with he rest of the volunteers with whom we shared a delicious evening meal.
In the morning we waved goodbye to Enzo and the rest of the volunteers and headed into, and straight out of, Cerkezkoy in the direction Binkilic where we proceeded to loose the road completely and ended up on a dirt track surrounded by sheep. That's right, here we were, less than 100km from the second largest city in the world, lost in the middle of nowhere! Luckily for us a friendly man on a horse soon put us on to the 020 road.
We had actually always intended to join this road since reading this blog and, as promised the road was well paved, traffic free and scenic as we rolled through the forest in the Autumn sunlight.
We stayed in a small, basic, inexpensive hotel in Kestanelik where the 020 meets the 010 and drank plenty of caj with the locals. The next morning we set off on the final slog to Istanbul. The 010 was undergoing a number of "improvements" and building works while we were there, the road was no more than a dirt track as we left Kestanelik but soon opened out into a very well paved, 3 lane highway with a huge shoulder and no cars... Perfect!
Unfortunately, due to yet more road works, this didn't last long. There were a number of stretches which were pretty horrendous, the wide shoulder disappeared and the ever increasing traffic was funnelled into just one lane. There were also trucks, lots of them, both from the construction work and also from what looked (and smelled) like a landfill site that was just out of view.
Potentially, once the construction is finished, this road will provide a nice, smooth backdoor into Istanbul, but we have heard it said that once the third bridge across the Bosphorous is completed that this will become part of the main route from Amsterdam to Asia... we guess only time will tell.
But for us, the route took us through the beautiful Beograd forest (a popular picnic spot) and after a nice, breezy downhill popped us out right on the banks of the jellyfish filled Bosphorous strait at Sariyer... We had arrived in Istanbul, it was Christmas Eve!
From here we went North to spend Christmas with our hosts, but a few days later we returned to Sariyer and followed the Bosphorous all the way to the heart of Istanbul and so can attest that it is possible to stay on the embankment, and out of the traffic for most of ride and it is also completely flat.
There are, of course, plenty of ways to get into the city, and if you'd prefer to travel in from the South you could always try this route, recently posted by our friends The Next Challenge.