I had rented out my room in Denver for December and was holding the latter half of a roundtrip ticket from Stockholm, leaving Florida a few days after Thanksgiving. Since I would be visiting family in Pittsburgh for Christmas, returning to Europe and figuring out a cheap return flight seemed preferable to buying two pricey cross-country tickets and sleeping on my couch.
Since the whole of Europe was cold and rainy, and my dreams of biking around Uganda were thwarted by a small ebola outbreak, I concocted a plan to fly into Hyderabad for a bike trip around tropical Kerala. But when I arrived at my gate in Istanbul, the discount Saudi airline refused to let me board the plane. And so, with my stack of South Indian Kindle guidebooks rendered useless, I returned to the lounge and rapidly cobbled together a half-baked plan for biking around Turkey.
Turkey’s climate bears little resemblance to Kerala’s. And I could find little evidence that, even in more favorable seasons, anyone had ever particularly enjoyed cycling the country’s roads. But, with few cheap options for onward travel, I bought my visa, crossed through immigration, and gave it my best shot.
While some Turkish towns have decently vibrant cycling scenes, Istanbul is not one of them. But with a population of 15 million, there are still a few used bike shops within a dozen miles of downtown. I tracked one down and picked up a 90s mountain bike for $80 and got a rack installed for $20 more. Though many of the bike’s mechanical shortcomings were glaringly obvious, the shop owners showed little interest in fixing them for me.
I got my first flat tire within an hour, and would patch ten more over the course of my twelve days of riding. This was eleven punctures beyond what I had encountered in the thousand miles between Slovenia and Warsaw. I don’t know how much credit should go to the bike’s tires and how much to the terrible state of the roads. Also, my back hub failed twice, and this proved harder to resolve on the side of the road.
Turkey has an extensive system of “cultural routes” that are mostly aimed at hikers, but various websites mention that some of them are theoretically possible to bike. One such trail, the Sufi, shut me down almost immediately with impassable mud.
The country’s one EuroVelo route largely occupies the shoulders of major highways and should be summarily renounced by that organization.
There are many quiet country roads, including a two-day stretch I followed through Cappadocia, but these are poorly documented and easily lost in a vast web of paved and gravel roads. If you were able to reliably discern which these were, you might be able to piece together an enjoyable tour. I did not manage to do this.
Several times a day, I found myself in a situation that would lead any reasonable person to conclude that they were about to be torn to shreds by a pack of bloodthirsty sheepdogs the size of small bears. Rabies is supposedly pretty common, but it seems unlikely that you would live long enough to worry about it.
Trucks provide an endless stream of noxious fumes on all but the smallest roads. Villages, most of which sit at the top of lung-busting hills, inevitably tended to be burning trash, tires, or whatever else they had on hand. The larger cities typically had the most breathable air, but were enveloped in a thick smog all the same.
One morning, it was 24 degrees. But it was a sunny, calm 24. Along the coast, it tended to be a wet and windy 55. I would’ve preferred zooming through high-country tea plantations in a breezy 75, but the weather turned out to be largely bearable – occasionally even pleasant.
The food scene is typically fantastic. In small towns and villages, people seem to subsist on tea and cigarettes, but anywhere with a few thousand people is supplied with an unbelievable array of bakeries, sweet shops, and restaurants. I typically ate at a style of restaurant where I could just point at ready-to-eat soups and stews, and be instantly served a generous portion and bottomless bread basket for a buck or two.
Many towns had bulk bin stores where you could buy a kilo of assorted Turkish delight for $2.
It was pretty common to find a very comfortable ensuite room with an absurd breakfast buffet for under $20.
On my first day of riding, a vanlife couple passed me as I was struggling up a hill, then stopped and offered me beer and homemade stew. Every time I got a flat, drivers were quick to stop and offer a hand. If I ever needed lodging or food or anything at all, I could simply walk into the nearest tea shop, and the locals would buy me several rounds of tea, and solve any problems I might have. Most everyone I met was fantastically welcoming and kind, even though I never learned how to say anything beyond “thank you”, “tea”, and “bread”.
Turkey is wonderful. It’s full of beautiful scenery, amazing history, way too much delicious food, and incredible people. But the biking is mostly terrible. You probably shouldn’t go there to bike. Maybe try Kerala. I’ve heard good things.