Getting closer to Istanbul (Helen Moat)
Blog Words : Freewheeling | 16 August

What I learned cycling from the UK to Turkey

As Helen Moat approaches Istanbul, she remembers her concerns before she set off. And realises they never materialised

It’s a week since we reached the Sea of Marmara – yet we still haven’t arrived in Istanbul. We are creeping along the coast at a snail’s pace. Why? It’s the fault of our ‘reception party’: they’ve told us on no uncertain terms, we are not to enter the city until the 15th of August… when they arrive.

First, we hunkered down on a coastal campsite near Silivri, but I’m not very good at sitting on a beach, so we’ve been creeping along the coast for the past couple of days, staying in cheap hotels and apartments. It’s no bad thing: no one told us the Marmara coast dips and rises steeply without respite. Also the heat has returned with a ferocity and we’ve now entered a metropolitan jungle, so thick that it takes Jamie all his time to negotiate the side roads straddling the D100 – too busy and fast for me to brave.

It’s frustrating and exciting at the same time. Istanbul is within spitting distance, yet we are being held back from that final sprint. On the other hand it has given me time to reflect. I read back my first blog on Freewheeling about my fears for the upcoming trip – and those worries seem somewhat laughable now. Hindsight is a wonderful thing.

There’s a saying: ‘Ninety percent of our worries never happens.’ This goes for our travel fears too. I write this with some reticence – because I know we have a couple of days left before we hit that wonderful city where west meets east, but I’m hoping our good fortune continues.

So what were those questions and what do I think now?

Will I be able to sustain long distance cycling over three and a half months?

Well, yes, yes and yes. I’ll be the first to admit that I was completely unfit before I set out and had done little or no training beforehand. I cycled into fitness, starting in the flat Netherlands and continuing along the flat Rhine and the almost flat Danube. By the time the hills started in earnest we were well into our trip – and my fitness was building up.

What happens if I get ill/have an accident?

The worst accident I had was (pathetically) walking into a glass door while Couchsurfing. My pride was injured more than me – although there was blood everywhere. I did get ill on my birthday with a tummy bug (how unlucky was that). We were staying in a hotel and I simply extended my stay until I could keep food down.

How often is the bike going to break down in the middle of nowhere? (We think we can manage flat tyres now – that’s a major breakthrough. But anything else will probably require a bike shop)

Spokes, spokes and more broken spokes (all Jamie’s). We cycled on to cycle shops the first two times; a local found an old wheel with a replacement spoke the third time and on the day three spokes broke one after the other in the middle of the Balkans, a shop keeper organised a lift to the next town with a bike shop.

When Jamie ruined a tyre, we found a makeshift shop in a small village selling a few tyres. The cheap replacement got us through Romania and most of Bulgaria until we found a decent repair garage in Aytos. What I hadn’t realised was just how willing the locals would be to help us out when we asked them.

What if we get lost? (The only reason why Jamie has agreed to come is because I’m hopeless with maps)

Well, I think I have the best map-reader in Europe with me. Without Jamie, I’m sure I’d be in Lapland now. I have zero sense of direction, love maps, but can’t relate the symbols (which I understand perfectly) to the reality on the ground.

How will I manage the bike with loaded panniers? (I’ve never tried)

You don’t even notice the panniers after day one.

And why did I choose one of the heaviest ‘Dutch style’ bikes in the shop?

Yes, good question. In retrospect, I should have bought a tourer, but actually, I’ve had no problems with my bike. My ‘Dutch gal’ may be heavy, but she’s very sturdy. I haven’t even had a flat tyre (as far as I can tell with my slime-filled wheels). I won’t bad-mouth her because she’s looked after me well.

What happens once we leave Austria behind – and no longer speak the languages of the remaining eight countries we’re travelling through?

No question, I missed the German-speaking countries as a semi-fluent German speaker. Knowing a language gives you access to a country, its people and culture that you otherwise miss out on. What surprised me is just how useful German is beyond Austria. In Slovakia, Hungary and Croatia, it was a life-saver on numerous occasions – and again in Turkey. There were many occasions, German was spoken rather than English. I’ve also become quite good at sign language.

How do we ward off the packs of dogs that roam eastern European towns and villages?

The packs of dogs never materialised. And when they say, ‘a dog’s bark is worse than its bite’, there has never been a truer idiom. Our biggest problem was the friendly café dog who followed us out of town and refused to go home again. We thought we were going to have him join us all the way to Istanbul.

Oh, and what happens if we’re mugged?

To date (and I’m aware we have two days left) we never felt threatened in any of the countries we passed through. Rather than being mugged, we experienced generosity and kindness from strangers – again and again and again.

And how will we survive the lorries that thunder along busy stretches of road?

The lorries were scary initially. The longer you cycle on the roads, the more relaxed you become. Someone told me that lorry drivers are less dangerous than car drivers: they are experienced and road-smart. There are exceptions – and occasionally they drove too close for comfort, but it was much less of an issue than I thought it would be.

And will I ever have the courage to try wild camping?

Err, no.

And the biggest question of all: How will I ever get over the Balkan Mountains? (since I have a penchant for seeking out pleasingly flat dismantled railways, valley floors and hill-less countries/counties...)

I surprised myself at how many hills I managed to cycle up. I learned a few strategies: don’t look at the gradient above, keep your eyes on the ground and try to get some momentum going – as slowing down to a crawl only makes it harder. (These lessons came rather late in the trip – but better late than never). That apart, Jamie and I haven’t been afraid to do a bit of ‘biking and hiking’ as we jokingly refer to it.

So here we are with two days to go. Wish us luck.

Helen Moat (Helen Moat)Helen Moat is the author of Slow Travel: Peak District for Bradt Guides.She is currently cycling from the UK to Istanbul. You can find more of her travel pieces on her blog.

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