Turkey, the bum between two chairs

It has been a while since I last posted an article in my blog, and I feel it is becoming urgent to write before I forget. So I finally enter Turkey by the Erdine border, paying my first visa 25 Eur to a bored Turkish border office guy. I receive then my second warmshower reply of this trip. Baris will host me for a while in Istanbul. Perfect! I slowly discover the own characteristics of the country. Mosques, prayers call (even during the nights), Turkish delicious food (kebab, durum, ayran – a drinkable yogurt, which is so good after a rough cycle, … ). It was also really interesting to cross the first bits of land during the ramadan. Not everyone does the ramadan. I would say that it is roughly 50-50, among the young Turks speaking English at least. I finally reached Istanbul taking the bus for the last 70 kms. The megapole is a monster and jumping right away into a 17 millions people city, where the traffic is so dense, sounded too perilous to me. Here the drivers honk a lot. But it isn’t actually offensive, most of the time, they use it to show you their position and tell you that they are coming by one of your sides or back. Once used to it, it happens that it is not really hard to cycle in the city. You just have to pretend you’re a car and be careful at the crossroads, but I didn’t have any trouble. And slaloming through the cars during traffic jams reveal to be a lot of fun.

Baris is a software engineer living in Sisli, one modern part of the megapole, located in the north of the city. From there, I had an ideal position to visit the city. I had honestly never seen a place such as Istanbul. It is definitely a special city, surrounded by the Bosphorus, hilly on some part, and always full of people, cars, going everywhere, and disappearing into hidden tiny streets. I had a nice time with Baris, discovering loads of new turkish food, including great patisseries (baclava – pistachios cookies, sutlac – rice pudding, …). It was also nice to discuss with my host about bicycle touring, as he also plan to do a big tour one of these days. We also watched the Turkish and Belgian foot teams getting owned during the Eurogames. But we didn’t really care, I think we can say that we aren’t really foot fans. I then took the ferry to leave Istanbul, finally leaving the European continent to reach Asia. Direction Ankara. I crossed really unexpected nice hills while pedaling to the Turkish capital. That’s the beauty of travelling by bike, as you don’t skip any stretch you can sometimes discover really nice landscape, far away from any tourist. I was once stopped during a climb by Ferdiun, a poultry farmer working 20 km away, in Dedeler, a little town. After a quick chat he invited me to pass the night at his place. He also invited me to break the ramadan feast, but surprisingly his parents didn’t wanted to join as I wasn’t muslim. Quite surprising for me, but finally that’s not important, I had a nice time with Ferdiun, talking about so much different subject. About for example the really strong patriostism of the Turkish people.

One surprising fact for me in Turkey is the massive presence of the national flag. They are trully everywhere! Outside fuel station, or within the office desk, on the rear window of cars and trucks, on bikes, in gardens. You could also see a lot of references to Ataturk, a previous Turkish leader that has modernized the country about 100 years ago. He also decided to change the alphabet used in the Turkish language to the latin characters. The “father of the nation” is still an important political figure, the one that raised the country from darkness. Turkish people are definitely really proud of their country.

I then reached Ankara and its 4.000.000+ inhabitants. I stayed in a very nice Irish-Polish couple’s place, located in the campus of Bilkent University. Nora and Mihael are teaching English, as most of the course are taught in the language. We had some nice chat about the country and the challenges that face the country. Turkey seems on a turning point of his history. Caught between 2 continents, between modernity and tradition, religion and laicity, democracy and dictatorship. Concerning the last choice, it seems to me that Erdogan has finally decided to rule the country on his own way after the (his?) coup d’etat. If find it too bad, I think Turkey would be a paradise if ruled by a democratic and progressist government. The people are so nice here. Hopefully the future will get brighter for the Turks.

After a quick sightseeing of the Cappadoccia, a touristic area in the center, I took the bus to Trabzon to apply for my Iranian visa. I stayed for a week in Nurullah and Polat’s place, two engineer student from Black University of Trabzon. It was a nice stay, experiencing their easy-going way of life in a small cosy appartment, surrounded by (crazy) cats. I also met there two really nice french bikers, Pierre and Lucie, a couple cycling the Silk Road as well. They have a project with a children school in France. They stay in touch during the trip with the pupils (with their blog – les petits mollets dans la tete -), to make them discover new countries and give them the taste of travelling.
They finally proposed me to meet up later on in Erzurum to bike a while together. So it is finally with some companions that I would head to Iran…

To be continued… 🙂 

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Warm people and warm weather. Doberdan in the Balkans!

I had really no clue what to expect while entering the Balkans, 2 weeks ago. It is true that those southern areas don’t always have the best reputation ever concerning safety in western Europe so I started to turn a little paranoiac, or at least suspicious, when crossing the Slovenian border to enter Croatia. Also because an old Slovenian lady, after a quick chat about my next destination, told me that she would pray god for me as Zagreb was according to her full of bad people.

Well, it wasn’t!

 

However, it is true that the first kilometers within Croatia were an eye opener for me, full of old cracked buildings, tiny exchange office (Croatia don’t have the Euro yet, so I had to change some money to Kuna) and crooked roads. This rural area was definitely quite poor. Even though I found the country really bike friendly, as the traffic was quite low and the drivers surprising really slow. In small roads max speed is set at 40 km/h and Croatians seems to be very keen to respect it. After few km, the landscape became very authentic and nice, full of little hills where secondary roads pass by. After a quick visit of Zagreb, the large capital which is numbed in the south of a huge hill, I started to head to Serbia entering again more rural areas.

The more I cycle and the less I’m enjoying crossing big cities. There’s a lot of cars, traffic lights that stop you every 200 m, and I sometimes don’t feel so safe with my panniers full of expensive devices (despite they’re hidden though) with so much people around.

 

I had an excellent time cycling the Croatian countryside. People were smiling, offering me some food, and sometimes even joking with me, like that time where drivers of an old carriole tracked by a donkey didn’t wanted to let me overpass them leading to a frenetic race that I finally lost. Damned donkey! I also met a father and his son that were on a bike tour for 2 days. It was the gift that asked Roberto for his 13th birthday, I found that idea pretty cool! They even invited me to join them later on in a camping for the evening but very sadly I have never found that place. Well I guess you can’t be lucky all the time.

 

Few day later, during my last evening in Croatia, I had the pleasure to be hosted by the Atelj family in Vinkovci. Despite the fact that neither Mike or his wife speak English it was still possible to communicate as Mike used to work in Switzerland and thus fluently speaks German. A lot of people within the Balkans used to work for a while in a Germanic countries and therefore some basics of this language can be surprisingly way more usefull than English. After a nice evening with their company it was then time to leave Croatia and its strawberry fields to enter Serbia.

 

Serbia isn’t a member of the Schengen space, so that means for the first time of my trip I had to pass through checkpoint and receive stamps on my passport. One big difference with Croatia was the way Serbian people drive their car. It is more… exotic over there I would say. Combined to the poor built road it was sometimes a little tricky to be overpassed by a truck or car but luckily, by taking care and sometimes go off the road it went just fine. I received quite few food gift in Serbia (strawberries, hamburger) and I have to say it is always uplifting when it happen. Being stopped by locals offering you gift when cycling and sweating under the warm sun become definitely the highlight of the day.

 

Reaching the Serbian side of the Danube river (my old friend) near Belgrade and waiting for the ferry to cross it, I met an interesting french guy that was heading to Moldavia with his car to rest there for a while. A quick chat started and he began to told me about his bike travel, 20 years ago, in south east Asia with his 2 daughters of 2 and 12 years old, just after he had some really hard time in his life. I find those kinds of story inspiring. I guess travelling can sometimes be a nice way to recover from really tough times, but I’m also wondering if in some case it is not a way to flee away from problem. I also met a nice young parisian couple who was slowly heading to Istanbul, in order to visit a friend. Serbians were really generous during my stay, even though I learned that their average income is around 300 Euros, something like the fifth of what you can earn in Western Europe. It is really not much as the food is still only half the price than in Belgium. I also heard that the country is currently strike by an economic crisis and that the inflation rate is so high that the price of some goods could double every two months. Anyway, it was not a reason for the Serbian people to lower their awesome generosity.

 

I finally had to speed up a bit and leave the country in order to meet my first warmshower experience in the bulgarian capital, Sofia. Warmshower is an online community that allows bikers to find free hosts in every parts of the world. It’s an exchange system: after being guest few times you should try to host yourself some bikers in return back home. This system is awesome as it allows to meet people that share the same taste of travelling than you. It is also a very nice way to discover a country, instead of an expensive hostel. I was hosted by Mishu in Krichim street, in the south of the city. Mishu is a PhD engineer that has a passion for the photography. He is then often invited to concert or dancing spectacle to take some pictures. I was glad to be invited to assist to a Bulgarian traditional concert, which consist in choral singing various travel songs, all members wearing traditional bulgarian cloths.

I then quickly head to Istanbul, and after few days in the bulgarian countryside (where I was surprised to see really nice mountains) and entering Turkey, took the bus to avoid the very last kilometers before entering the city and its crazy drivers. Istanbul is one of the biggest metropole in the world with 15 millions of people living along the Bosphorus. I’m now staying in another awesome warmshower host Baris while discovering this very interesting city. The ramadan has begun few days ago and it’s nice to heard each evening the prayer calls from the many mosques of the city. Its now time to chill a bit, plan the next part of my trip and enjoy the Istanbulian way of life.

 

Thanks for reading and see you soon for more Turkish adventures:-)

Take care

Jean

 

Becoming a cyclonomad

It is 10 pm and I’m comfortably numb in one bed of the GEC hotel, close to Zagreb, where I seeked shelter after the heavy rain that hit Croatia this late afternoon. After a good shower, warm and dry again, I think it’s the perfect time to write my first blog after 20 days of travel, crossing Germany, Austria and Slovenia.

 

Well, I finally started my trip the 4th May. I delayed a little my departure as I have a special guest to wait for: Zelda, a Swedish girl that just cycle through Africa came to give me a GPS tracker and also some wise advices to begin the travel in good conditions (you can check out her awesome blog over there: zeldacyklar.se). One of her advice was that it was very difficult to carry one guitar on a bike (I really wanted to bring it with me so I even ask my uncle to build a little rack on the rear wheel to carry the instrument… I would resend back the guitar at the third day of my trip, weight is definitely the first enemy of the biker!).

 

So the 4th of May, I happily began to ride my bike after saying goodbye to my family, heading to Germany. Touring with a bike it is definitely something amazing. The whole world becomes reachable, you just need to pedal to get where you want to go.

The perfect freedom. Magical!

 

After few kilometers and getting lost in Luxembourg, I followed the Mosel and the Danube to reach Munich and then Vienna. Those tracks were really quiet and nice to follow, and were also full of (quite old) bike tourers, wandering in couple or sometimes in family. It is impressive that all the services around and also hostels are bike-friendly. It is sure that Germans have a strong affection for the 2 wheels.

 

I had some nice touch of hospitality during those first 2 weeks, more than I actually could expected in western Europe. A granddad gave me a free water bottle, another let me put the tent on the garden, I was invited for one free night in a pension on a rainy day… But my best memory so far was the encounter with Tony. I think we can say that Tony is a pure Bavarian guy. He was biking with his massive german shepherd dog while we met, in the countryside near Munich. After some chat about the weather, he quickly invite to sleep in his garden house so I could be in a dry place for the night. After settling up, he soon invited me to the restaurant, where we talked about travelling. He told me about some stories and really nice experiences he get while biking in New Zealand, France and Sardaigna. He told me that NZ is a blast for long tour bikes, as the landscape but also the people are great and I don’t have any doubt about that. We went in Salzburg together next morning for a quick sightseeing. I have to say I felt sometimes a little guilty to receive so much hospitality without being able to give anything back.

 

After few more days of bike, reaching Vienna and sightseeing again a bit – it is truly a beautiful city by the way – I took the train to Graz to take a short break while visiting a friend. Few days later I reached Slovenia and Croatia. It is no so long that I have biked in southern countries but I can definitely say that the mood is different here than in the previous lands I crossed. I received bananas, an old lady wanted to give me a whole cake (I refused because its not the best to eat while biking, even though it seemed very good)… I’m curious how things are going to turn!

 

It is now nearly midnight and I feel like it is time for me to stop writing because I’m too tired to tell stories in a good way. But there is maybe one last thing I wanted to show you, a picture I made between the border of Slovenia and Croatia, showing fences to ‘protect’ from refugees.

 

See you later:-)

 

Jean

 

 

Getting started

After working during few months to get some money and reading everyday about cyclotouring on the internet, it’s finally time for me to get my reward and hit the road with my bike 🙂

Before starting the trip I thought it could be nice to explain further some of the reasons that push me to begin a long bike tour.

Well, of course one of the main reason is that I wish I could live an unique experience, while meeting tons of different people in many countries. Cycling seems the best way to realize it, as this slow way of motion really allows to get to know people along the way.

Furthermore, I have always felt really attracted by adventure, while reading books like Lord of the Rings or Into the Wild for example. Quests and big adventures fascinate me and I guess made me willing to create my little own with this expedition.

Also, recently graduated, I don’t feel like I could enjoy starting a career right away, get a job in a random corporation and work until the pension. I wish I could work according to my own values but it seems like highly unlikely nowadays within the job market in Belgium.

Finally, I feel this journey could be fulfilling for me in many ways. I do believe that this experience will help me to decide what I want to do in the future but also in a more personal point of view, to strenghten myself in self-confidence and openness. I guess this kind of long travel is also an inner journey.

So that’s all for this prelude, see you in few weeks for the first “real” blog! 😉

Jean

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