I am presently sat in Istanbul, nearly ready, but for a few last tasks, to head off for the north coast – a short ride northeast to Şile.
The last nine days has been an interesting mix of landscapes, cultures, and adventures – including near crashes, run-ins with the Greek military, a little urban exploring, Ifthar feats, and more wild camping.
From Craiova I pushed on, through an unremarkable agricultural landscape to the Bulgarian border crossing at Oryahovo (Оруахово) – crossing the Danube by ferry for the last time. That evening, camping a few kilometres south of the border, I was disturbed by a large muscular Bulgarian as I was setting up my tent. I presumed he wanted me to leave, so began to pack and apologise – only to be told ‘no no, you stay… But is it safe? Will you be ok?’; the man was only worried for me! Having been reassured to some degree he took off, and I returned to prepping camp, only to have the same man return with a bag of supplies; water, bread, cheese, sausage, croissants, and an ice cream! He handed over the goods sheepishly, to a very surprised and gratified Seth, before shooting off again. His name was Nick.
Over the next two days I cut cross country, making use of little local roads and dirt tracks more frequented by horse-carts than cars, towards Gabrovo (Габрово).
As I approached the city there was a sharp increase in communist era remnants – striking statues of working men or women, partially hidden by overgrowths of vegetation, monuments crumbling by the road, and, on the final approach to Gabrovo, a large rearing horse statue with the name if the city writ across its pedestal.
On that final approach I had a terrying moment when, cyling along a dual-carriageway, my front wheel caught the road edge, nearly pulling the bike out from under me, and causing me to swerve violently into to road. I was lucky there was a break in the traffic, or I might be in a rather worse state.
I ate lunch in a park, while being amused by three loquacious children, before conintuing on to the mountains. As I began to climb however, an unholy outpouring of all the heavens cats and dogs forced me to seek shelter. What appeared to be a slackening in the rain lulled me into continuing – only to be soaked through further as the storm’s violence ratcheted up a few levels. It was at that time, plodding around a tight switchback with a veritable river flowing past me on the hardshoulder, that a man with a van, who’s name I am ashamed to say I have forgotten, stopped for me and insisted I take a lift to the top. Feeling a little ashamed I accepted, and cruised the rest of the way to the top of the road (a good idea with hindsight, as my camera had began to wet through). From there I thanked the man, locked up my bike, and took a punitive march up 676 steps to the Shipka monument – a striking tower of rusticated stone guarded by a fearsome lion statue atop a mountain peak, surrounded by communist iconography and stunning views. The Shipka monument was inaugurated in 1934 to memorialise Bulgarian and Russian troops who died during the Shipka Battles during the liberation of Bulgaraia from Ottoman rule in 1877.
I camped in the mountains to the east of the Shipka monument, lighting a damp smokey fire and relaxing amidst beautfiul woodland.
The next morning I continued east, contouring through the mountains, to the base of the unusual, striking, and frankly other-worldly Buzludzha – a communist conference centre constructed in the brutalist style during the 1970s. A steep cycle up a degraded road brought me to the mountain top where the UFO-esque building lies; the mountain top was flattened to facilitate its construction, decreasing its height by nearly ten metres! The intrepid can break into the building, from where the conference hall can be truely appreciated – with elaborate mosaic murals of communist iconography running the full 360° of the hall.
To enter the building requires one to squeeze through a hole in the paving beside the building, into a basement room, descending by way of a large boiler, associated pipework, and a questionable fixed rope, before jumping through an opening atop a sealed door. Accompanying me was an Austrian named Tom. Tom, who was touring by motorbike, had been told how to enter by some other bikers he had met on the way. Prior to the Austrian’s arrival I had been attempting to find a way in via the roof (having donned my climbing shoes and scampered up a surprisingly good layback to the rear of the building), rather than attempting the fly ridden basement.
A fast downhill, and a day-and-a-half riding bought me to the Bulgaria-Greece border, which I had opted for, hearing that the road was far safer and quieter than the quasi-motorway at the Turkish border crossing.
Following my phone app along the Greek border, I wound along paved country roads between small rural villages. At one point the road deteriorated to a dirt road… Little did I know that from that point, and for the proceeding four kilometres, I would be cycling on a restricted military road. I was enlightened to the fact when a green van pulled up and two military personnel disembarked to stop me at gun point, demanding my passport. I then followed the men to a checkpoint, where an interpreter verified my documents, questioned me, and searched my photos for anything incriminating. The police then arrived, following the same process, before I was allowed to proceed. From there my route crossed a wide river ford (soaking my feet) and then ran for a couple of kilometres to the border crossing to Turkey. Amusingly, the Turkish side if the crossing comprised elaborate gardens, stylised iron fencing, and a large number of peacocks, in stark contrast with the unornamented, degraded, Greek side.
A length of cycle path bought me east to Edirne, crossing two elegant historic stone bridges, to the pretty little city. I stayed the night in a hostel, showering and relaxing.
The next day I pushed on for Çorlu, some 100 kilometres short of Istanbul. In Çorlu I was hosted through Warmshowers by Melih and his family. Melih has toured extensively through Europe, Turkey, and Asia – including a winter crossing of Kazakhstan (in temperatures of -20°C)! He has recently opened a bike shop, specialising in touring gear, where he hosts passing cyclists. Being Ramadan I was invited to eat with his family for Ifthar (the breaking of the Ramadan fast at sunset), being fed until even my cycling-fueled hunger was satiated.
I arrived into Istanbul through manic traffic on Friday afternoon, hopping on a ferry to the Asian side (Kadıköy) where I checked into a hostel. Yesterday I went for a climb at Boulder Istanbul, a small centre near the hostel. While there I met Mertcan – a local English teacher and sound technician – who invited me to join him and his friends for coffee and a trip to the city walls. I gratefully accepted, and spent an enjoyable evening with Mertcan and his Greek friend Epicas, exploring the old city walls, drinking tea, eating, and strolling through the city’s historic areas, before grabbing the last ferry back to Kadıköy in the evening. Epicas, originally from Athens, is studying traditonal ottoman folk music in İstanbul.
That’s all for now!
Time to get some cycling done!