It’s the final countdown…

…du nu na naaaaa….du bu du na naaaa…*

That’s right folks, crossing the border from Greece into Turkey doesn’t just mark our 15th country, it marks the beginning of the final chapter in our journey: cycling the eastern-most tip of Continental Europe.

Istanbul, here we come!

Crossing into Turkey and entering the town of Ipsala we were immediately greeted by what will remain in our memories as a lasting image of the country: an old man coming out of a tea room and shouting at us to come in and drink tea. Tea rooms are everywhere in Turkey. In many small towns and villages the tea room is the male social hub, providing men young and old with a place to congregate, chat, and pass the time (we saw one woman in a tea room once; we’re still not clear if Becky’s presence was offensive or not, if it was they never let on, although she couldn’t go for a wee in them due to the absence of any toilet that wasn’t a urinal). They’re usually fairly basic and look like a cross between a social centre and what one might imagine a Communist Party meeting hall might look like. But what they lack in splendour they make up for in hospitality and friendliness.

Becky drinking tea and helping the tea room owner’s granddaughter practice her English

A word about çay: it’s integral to Turkish life – it’s difficult to imagine anything operating without the stuff. It is, however, drunk differently to our beloved English Breakfast variety – drunk black, with two lumps of sugar. Many of the old men have rotten teeth from the sugar – two cubes in a cup might not be the end of the world, but it’s certainly the end of your teeth if you have 20 cups a day.

Typical scene outside a tea room

Since entering Turkey we have been into maybe 20 such tea rooms, and it took us four attempts to actually pay for tea as we kept getting either given it for free by the owners or bought it by fellow tea-drinkers (this is a standard example of the hospitality we have received). We even slept above one of them and camped in the garden of another. Basically, we really bonded with Turkey’s tea rooms.

‘Wild camping’ above a tea room (among drying walnuts and tubs of olives)

After crossing the border we made our way to the Aegean sea; our plan being to roughly follow the coast line (it transforms from the Aegean coast to the Marmara coast) all the way to Istanbul. This route took us through a surprisingly rural part of Turkey; full of agriculture, small hamlets (all with tea rooms) and hills. So many hills. We thought after the Rodophe Mountains it was basically downhill to Istanbul. Turns out this was wishful thinking!

Rolling hills and winter sun for our first few days in Turkey

On our rest day in Sarkoy on the coast, the weather turned. Goodbye winter sunshine – hello winter gales and rain. This had a few consequences; the first of which is that the place in which we were staying in leaked in a dramatic style, meaning we had to spend one of our precious nights indoors huddling together trying to find somewhere to sleep that wasn’t being rained on. Bugger that.

If we wanted to get rained on we’d have stayed in the tent

The second consequence of the weather was that, on the day after leaving Sarkoy, we had to abort our cycling completely because the wind and the rain were making it too dangerous to cycle. The owner of a tea shop that we’d stopped at to regroup (we’d been poured on for 2 hours whilst cycling into a headwind, meaning we’d only covered 25km but were mentally and physically knackered and in dire need of a cuppa) insisted that we sleep in the tea shop: the cliffs were prone to rock falls and so in these conditions we’d be stupid to cycle. He was proved right the next day as we continued our journey amid a rock-strewn road.

The wind had caused the waves to smash the sea wall onto the road

Along with the weather, our spirits had turned too. The next few days out of Sarkoy – including the one which we had to abort – were frustratingly tough. We pondered the reasons why we were finding it so challenging; perhaps it was because the end was so close that, for the first time, we just wanted to get there and it was ‘about the destination, sod the journey’; perhaps it was because after nine months we were just plain tired; perhaps it was simply to do with the rain, snow and the ferocious headwind. More than likely it was a combination of all these things, but whatever the reason the results was quite a few emotional meltdowns (including a spectacular one by Sam on the side of a mountain). We knew we would get to Istanbul, we are both too stubborn to have given up, but we just wished the last few days of this magnificent adventure weren’t proving to be so hard.

Challenging conditions

After a few grueling days of cycling, we arrived for lunch in the unremarkable town of Corlu where fate dealt us a lucky card. Just as we were leaving our grilled meat lunch place (so much grilled meat in Turkey!) a man appeared, gesturing excitedly (and slightly in your face as per the Turkish way; no offence is meant by their body language, it’s just markedly different to British culture) that he was also a cyclist. We told him that we were heading to Istanbul and he insisted that the best route was to take the main road – a road that we had been furiously avoiding. Given our frame of mind we thought we’d give it a go. Two hours later, having cycled on a gloriously large hard shoulder, we’d covered 45km (our average speed that morning had been 9kmh – what a difference!). We were now in Silviri and a single day’s ride from Istanbul…

After a blast down the D100 we were on the coast and a day from Istanbul