At around 5:00pm on a muggy Turkish Wednesday, I stopped at a construction site in search of water. It had been a long, gorgeous day of biking–I’d probably logged about 80 kilometers since the start. The roads were good, and the views were even better, as my two wheels and I spent the afternoon careening through rolling green, sunflower yellow, a jolly rancher on a thumping tractor, and some stunning lakeside hue.
Arriving at our construction site, and with little energy, I asked for a glass of water. In truth, I did have about a half-litre in my bottle, but with a few remaining hours of sunlight and the fire to keep pedaling, I figured it an OK request. “Su?” I asked, flaunting one of the 25 Turkish words I know (numbers 1-15 included).
Instead, and at this point almost predictably, the man went into his trailer and returned with not just a bottle of water, but with bread, tomatoes, a cucumber, and a salt shaker to boot. I hadn’t eaten in a while, and the food was a very welcome gesture. I made small sandwiches, downed a few glasses of water, and engaged in my standard conversation of charades, broken Turkish/English, and a whole lot of smiling. Like most Turks I’ve met, they seemed excited to have an American in their midst. Perhaps even more so, as we were really in the middle of nowhere.
Upon leaving, I asked my new friends about the road ahead. “It’s a bit up, and a bit windy,” they gestured with their hands.
“Tamam,” I replied, meaning “OK” in Turkish. “I suppose I’m up for the challenge.” I slowly walked my bike to the road, now with a bit more energy, clipped in my shoes, and began the uphill climb.
As promised, the thing was steep, and my legs began to tire. I had already cycled a respectable amount that morning and afternoon, so I quickly resolved to just get to the top, and find a place to camp. How tall could this thing really be?
The road rose, and rose, and rose some more. It wound to the right, and back to the left, and then right-left-right-left until I couldn’t take it much longer. The climb began at an elevation of roughly 100 meters, as I stared upwards at a dipping sun, the dong-ding-dong of a roaming cow, and a looming barricade of bushes and trees. Before long, I was staring no longer up, but right back down–out into a gaping valley, splashed mostly green from the endless farmland, as the sun continued to sink, and the road continued to rise. My altimeter now read 600 meters and above. How much higher can this thing go?
Around 6:30, I got off my bike: I couldn’t pedal uphill anymore. There’s really no shame in walking, and if it’s any consolation, pushing a loaded touring bike up a hill–mine weighs roughly 50kg–is no easy task. So I pushed. I pushed with music on, I pushed with music off, I booked it up around sharp corners so as to be visible to approaching cars, and I took short breaks on the side of the road, sweating and panting for air. My arms quickly began to tire as well. I just wanted this thing to end.
Another hour of pushing, and still no end in sight. However, there was a mosque in the distance–its spiny, needle-like minaret piercing tohrough the sunset glow–which at least suggested that people did live nearby. Maybe camp wasn’t that far off.
Right before sunset, I arrived in the small village of Çerciler: this is where I’d look for camp. I pushed my bicycle further still–past gaping, awestruck, and genuinely confused farmers–and made my way into the main square. Here, I was quickly offered tea, as a crowd of 15+ people gathered around the sweaty American in the bicycle jersey, and explained my story. “My name is William, I am from the United States, I am riding a bike from Istanbul to China, and I was wondering if I could camp in a nearby garden.” Of course, in practice, this comes out more as a garbled variety pack of hand gestures, futility, and the Turkish word for “tent.”
The villagers led me to the garden of the mosque, and helped me get set up. While I did appreciate the 6 men assembling poles, hammering pegs, and zipping and unzipping the door, setting up a tent is really a solo job. In fact, my presence in Çerciler won me a bit more “help” and general fanfare than I would have liked, and in the future, I may opt to do more camping in the wild so as to avoid it.
The village folk were terribly nice though–no complaints there.
I woke up the following morning high in both confidence and energy. This hill must be almost over. My altimeter reads 1,000+ meters, and I just don’t see how much higher it can go.
I began the day on the pedals, but quickly aborted: I just wanted the thing to be over–I just wanted to glide down even the smallest hill–and I was certain that the end was right around the corner. Of course, I was wrong.
After 2 more hours of pushing, I reached the top. Well, the “sort-of” top. The road ceased to ascend, per se, but flattened itself out in a series of small dips and small hills. I was gliding–pedaling–once more. Maybe this thing will finally end soon.
For a short while, I enjoyed some small descents, and began to regain my confidence, momentum, and sanity. However, at the bottom of a large hill, I was again met with another climb: my spirits crashed once more. As calmly as I could, I de-boarded the bike, and began the slow walk into uphill infinity.
“Çay! Ekmek!” I heard from a distance. It was an old woman, beckoning me to come and enjoy tea and bread in the comforts of her home. I had already enjoyed my fair share of tea that morning, but in my exhausted state, this wasn’t an offer I was about to turn down.
30 minutes later, there wasn’t just tea, and there wasn’t just bread. I was lying down in a bed, as the woman put a pillow under my head and a blanket over my body, and as her husband filled a large silver tray with olives, cheese, honey, cucumber yoghurt, jelly, and pita, which he then placed directly next to me. I couldn’t help but laugh, audibly enjoying the absurdity of the moment, and reveling in the immense luxury of the situation. For the couch-bumming, tent-sleeping, road-weary cyclist and traveler alike, it doesn’t get much better than this.
The original thought was to just take a short break, but as plans do, this quickly changed. I napped, I ate, and I napped some more. When my çay glass was empty, the woman would refill it, and when I finished eating some bread and jelly, the man would urge me to eat more. My laughing didn’t cease either–I could hardly believe what was happening.
A bit later, we moved the party outside. The man laid down a rug on the grassy hill, and together with a few neighbors, we lounged, laughed, and taught Will some Turkish. Of course, there was more tea as well.
That day was my 6th straight on the bike, and really, I wanted to spend the night. The bed was comfy, my presence seemed welcome, and I just didn’t think anyone would mind. I have a Turkish phrasebook on my iPhone, and the closest thing it could muster was “I will stay for ___ nights”–not something I was particularly comfortable expressing. I took this, coupled with the woman mentioning “Alaçam, Alaçam” (the next big town) around 5:30pm as a sign that I was meant to push forward. I grabbed my shoes, snapped my helmet, and began to say goodbye.
I still don’t know the Turkish word for dog, but just before leaving, it was made very clear that there were many ahead. However, I figured the upcoming climb to be my very last before total descent; when flying down hills, dogs won’t catch you. I told the family I’d be OK–a rapid-fire of “tamam’s”–and took to the road.
After climbing the hill, there were in fact dogs. From the first farm I passed, two dogs barked at me from atop a small cliff. I yelled back my standard “DUR!“–“stop” in Turkish–perhaps to kickstart my confidence against the ones I’d meet later on, or perhaps as an exercise of ego. Unfortunately, it backfired. Both dogs quickly descended the hill, as well as a third one from the distance. All three dogs approached me, and a showdown ensued.
As I’ve done before, I hastily got off my bike, laid it on the ground, and stepped towards the dogs. These things are meant to guard the sheep on their respectives farms–from what, I don’t know–and they are meant to be vicious. One dog took the lead, coming within 5 feet of me, barking relentlessly and flashing its dark, jagged, frothy smile. As I’ve done before, I didn’t back down.
“DUR!” I shouted. “DUR–DUR–DUR!” The dogs only moved closer. Trying a new move, I grabbed the water bottle from my bike, and angrily slashed it in their direction. To this, they would retreat momentarily, and then resume their position–5 feet from my face. After some minutes, I had all but lost my voice. I was done with the “dur’s,” and I simply looked the lead dog in the eyes, praying silently that this would end smoothly, and repeated: “I’m not scared of you–I’m not scared of you–I’m not scared of you.”
Eventually, the dogs backed down. Slowly, I picked up my bike, and staring meticulously into my helmet’s rearview mirror, began to pedal away. Another close call with the dogs. This is the 4th time this has happened.
As predicted, the hills nor the dogs came to an end. The following hours, as sunset slowly approached, were spent dishing out many a solemn “salaam alaikum–please keep your dog away from me” to the sheep herders I’d pass, as well as climbing up, up, and further up. My altimeter eventually hit 1,300 meters: seriously, when will this be over?
It wasn’t all bad though–it never is. The blues of the fading light slowly began to mix with the pinks of a fading sun, like cotton candy dancing its way into form. The days are hot, but this time of day, right before sunset, the weather is just right. And I’m on the bicycle, baby–taking in as much as I can. Hills aren’t always fun, but the views they eventually lend often do make them worth it.
Here’s a video I took from the top, describing the day, the dogs, and the views alike:
I continued to pedal, descending a bit and finally covering some ground, in search of a suitable camping spot. I had no food, but was fortunately still full from the decadent afternoon. I’d set up my tent, go right to sleep, and head to Alaçam the following morning.
A bit further, as I whirred down a welcome hill churning out the day’s last kilometers, I encountered 3 more dogs. Not again–not tonight. Instead, I carefully stopped my bike, turned around, and began pedaling back the way I came in search of camp.
Shortly after, I found a road twisting off to the right, leading to a private farm. Just off this road, in a spot shielded by a large hill and several trees, I saw a solid pitch of grass. It was late, and I could hardly be seen: this is where I’d spend the night. I slowly clunked my bicycle down to the spot, and just as I began to unpack, a truck rolled past, and saw what I was doing: caught. The farmers stopped their truck, and angrily motioned a “you’re not allowed to camp here–go back up the road and find another spot” in my direction. It was late, and I had no food, no energy, and no place to sleep. I was just caught trespassing as well; it was not a good situation to be in. However, this is Turkey, and oh, how quickly these situations can change.
I grabbed my bike and walked back up to the road, smiling innocently at the angry farmers. I explained what I was doing–“William, America, bicycle, Istanbul, China,” the standard story–and hoped for their compassion. The farmers asked me if I needed food, making chewing noises and motioning with their hands. “Yes,” I replied, “I actually don’t have much.”
One of the farmers ran to the truck, and returned with a large bag of cherries and tomatoes. He then lead me to the other side of the road, and showed me a spot where I could camp–a better spot than before. “I’ll be right back with bread,” he motioned. “Ekmek”–“bread” in Turkish–was the only word I understood.
As I began to set up camp, yet another family approached. “Camping in the cold?” they said. “Nonsense. We have a wooden shed over there–you’re welcome to sleep inside. We’ll even help you with your bags. Here’s some bread, tomatoes, cucumbers, cheese, and peppers as well. When you’re all set up, you’ll come up to the house for çay.”
It wasn’t just çay, of course: is it ever?
Dinner was served.
The dad gave me some pants to wear: being in a Muslim home, I must cover my legs!
Breakfast the next morning–look familiar?
Family photo before heading off.
After breakfast and more pictures, the father and son helped me to organize my bike, and I eventually hit the road. Alaçam is by the sea, and was only 20 kilometers away, but still needing to descend 1000+ meters, it would not be an easy journey. Roughly half of the road was unpaved as well: I was often furiously clutching my breaks, trying not to slip, and still, praying for the f*cking thing to be over.
Towards the bottom, I popped a tire–my first of the trip. Keeping calm, I moved my bike to the side of the road, took out my tools, and began to fix. Not without help, of course.
Shortly after, the hill did end–in kebabs, ice cream, and downtown Alaçam to be exact. Overall, it really was one crazy journey.
A few hours ago, I spoke to my mother, and told her some of this story. “What’s the lesson here?” she asked.
As an American, I am often surrounded by an irrational fear or hatred of Muslims; perhaps, the lesson here is that Muslims are in fact incredibly kind and welcoming? This seems far too trite to be our lesson, though. Certainly, I don’t share this Islamophobia myself.
Instead, maybe the lesson is to trust in others–to give your faith to those who seem to genuinely want to help. To me–and I am privileged to be able to say this–this is something I learned many months ago, somewhere alongs the lines and peaks of my time in South America. To me, this is not the lesson.
I think the lesson here is to just say “yes” more often. This is a lesson that applies to us all. As Wayne Gretzky and Michael Scott alike have told us, you do miss 100% of the shots you don’t take. When you say “no,” you shut doors, and when you say “yes,” you swing them wide open. And with that door open, the optimist says: you really never know who or what is going to come inside.
People are amazing,