12 Aug Bikes on a highway: How to cycle into Istanbul
Arriving into Istanbul was an incredible feeling. It was past midnight by the time we made it safely to our hostel, but for all the exhaustion, fatigue, hunger and thirst, we couldn’t help but feel elated at having made it this far.
Sofia to Pazardjik
We left Sofia with one thing on our mind. Istanbul. We knew this was going to be a gruelling stage and we were estimating a 620km ride on major roads south to Turkey.
Cycle touring has not yet reached Bulgaria, so from Sofia there was a distinctive lack of safe cycling roads. We kept forgetting to take our Google maps of the ‘walking’ setting, so in order to avoid a particularly horrendous off piste excursion we had to jump over some barbed wire fences in order to re- join the motorway. Hi- Vis Jackets on, we were on our way.
Despite the arrival of a fairly strong headwind, compared to the backroads, we were making some great progress on the motorway south of Sofia. After a mid afternoon climb on a mountain pass, we started our descent into Plovdiv, our stop for the night. To begin we were literally gliding down the motorway, we had the whole hard shoulder to ourselves and we were flying into the city.
But it didn’t last long. At first, the wind picked up to an almighty pace. It’s quite hard to describe cycling into a strong headwind, but imagine putting the gym bike on the highest resistance and then getting someone to hold the brakes on. An impromptu thunder and lightning storm followed. Lightening strikes began to punctuate the darkness with an increasing frequency. It became difficult to control the bikes on the busy road and as safety is always our first priority, we were forced to pull in at a road side hotel. Disappointed at not making Plovdiv, we watched the storm from the sidelines of a service station.
The next morning, we were keen to catch up on the distance we had missed out from the storm before. Enjoying the downhill into Plovdiv on the motorway without the headwind, we reach the city in time for our morning coffee stop.
After a second breakfast (or breakfast desert as we like to call it) we left the motorway and the downhill behind. Taking the Bulgarian winding country roads, we could tell we were getting closer to the border, as lines of cars passed by from across the continent. We had lots of cars beeping at us, but we were never sure whether they were saying hello or telling us to get out of the way!
After a quick night stopover, in Hacksovo, we woke excited to get going on the road We had a big day ahead; we were aiming to cycle through three countries in one day: Bulgaria, Turkey and Greece.
After a quick goodbye to Bulgaria, we crossed into Greece, our last EU country. The border towns were small quiet, and slightly ghostlike. We were a bit surprised at the level of development in Greece, for some reason we had both expected to see marked difference from Bulgaria. The towns were lined with restaurants, but despite it being around 7pm, when we tried to stop for food we were repeatedly told they were all closed… So we pressed on and took a side road that promised to follow a railway track up to the Turkish border. After a quick venture across a shallow river (stop following google maps!) we finally made it to the border.
Unlike the EU, Turkey’s current security situation means that it has fortified its border. In contrast to the EU’s relaxed immigration officers, there was a substantial Turkish military presence and we were not allowed to take any photos.
Fortunately on a bike, its pretty easy to make it through to the front of the line and after smiling our way through security, we eventually made it into Turkey. A huge sense of achievement came across us as it began to dawn on us that we had successfully cycled from Holland across the continent! There was an instant change in scenery and feel in the country, a more upbeat and alive feel than Bulgaria and Greece, which got us instantly excited. Cycling into the border town Edirne at sunset, was one of the most special ways I have ever entered a city…
Full from a fantastic Turkish breakfast, we set out ready and excited to join the infamous D100. We had been warned about the road as being a death trap for cyclists, various authors describing the main route into Istanbul as ‘suicide’ and ‘unnecessarily risky’. But leaving Edirne we had the whole shoulder to ourselves, traffic was light, and we were feeling pretty optimistic.
But then the rolling hills that would continue into Istanbul began.
250 km of up and down and up and down. No flat at all. We would reach the top of one hill and then immediately fall back down to a low point. You would dread reaching the top of one, as all that you could see was the top of the next, never more than a few kilometres in the distance. The hills started to sap our morale, so we tried to take our mind off things by naming them.
Marilyn, Simon, Robert, and Charlotte were all successfully conquered, but it was getting gruelling and hard. Our legs were tired and by lunch we were both absolutely done in.
We had literally eaten our way through the day to keep our energy up, a stop for coffee and Bounce Balls, then Turkish snickers, cheese pannini, a whole pizza, Backlava, ice cream and lots of Turkish tea. The hills were made worse as well by the headwind that had followed us from Sofia. But we knew we had to keep going if we wanted to reach Istanbul the next day.
Due to the slow progress of the hills we had lost the light and were driving into Corlu, our stop for the night, in the dark. By this point we were both feeling pretty drained. We later found out that we had cycled 135km, with an elevation of around 3,000m. We collapsed into bed, after the hardest day on the bike.
Getting up and out up the next day was ‘challenging’ to say the least. Our will power and energy had been drained by the hills but we knew we had 120km still to cycle if we wanted to reach Istanbul by the evening. Thankfully, the hills seemed less extreme than the day before and our spirits were lifted by the fact by mid-morning we caught our first glimpse of the ocean. We stopped for some food at the seaside own of Silivri. The bikes seemed to like it.
Whilst the scenery improved, the D100 motorway that we followed since we had made it into Turkey started to get busier and busier. The safety of our hard shoulder disappeared, as the road turned into the four lane gateway to the city. We decided to take a detour on the side roads for a while, but progress was slow so we took the risk and got back on the motorway
We weren’t alone on this crazy road. Fortunately some Turkish cyclists gave us some advice along the way….
And it meant we were able to see views like this over Buyukcemece…
Finally making closer into the city, we were able to abandon the D100 and ride along the coastal road into the city. Istanbul was brimming with families enjoying the sunset and were cheered on down the sea front into the city, enjoying some local fish on the coast along the way.
Unfortunately, this was not the end of the journey. Istanbul is one big city. Whilst we had reached Istanbul, we had another 40km to go to get to the centre. We had booked a hostel in Taksim, right in the middle, and soon our lovely coastal road disappeared into the sea. By this point daylight and time had also disappeared; we found ourselves back on the inner city highways, in the dark heading into the city. We were constantly lost. Tired, hungry and exhausted we wandered aimlessly through bustling city. Finally we found a sign for Taksim and followed the main road across the bridge, with stunning views of the city. By this point however, it was nearly 11 o’clock, and our phone was about to die and we were still quite far from the hostel.
We assessed our options. The road to Taksim seemed to be a very steep, tightly curving four lane highway. So we thought it would be a good idea to go a different way. But as always, this was not as easy as it sounds. The patchwork of tiny streets became an impassible maze in the darkness, and it took us another hour to find our way to the hostel.
We arrived in Taksim square, at around midnight, but our problem solving was not quite finished. As there was not place to store the bikes, we had to lug them up to the balcony on our 5th floor. Thankfully our bikes seemed to enjoy their view of the city….
We woke the next morning ecstatic to be in Istanbul, where we had three days of rest, to repair and prepare for the next part of the trip. But whilst having breakfast we realised that there would be a whole new set of problems we were about to face. The BBC headline was ‘Terrorist Attacks in Istanbul.’ Around the time we had been entering the city on the bikes late at night, there had been both a car bomb attack and an attack on the US consulate. Although we were safe and well, we knew that now we had to be vigilant about our safety, and start planning for the trip ahead…
The Adventure continues..next stop Georgia!!
follow us on twitter @elevation2015
follow us on instagram @elevationchallenge2015
like us on Facebook facebook.com/elevationchallenge2015
Thanks to our sponsors Mark Evision Foundation, Cosaraf Foundation, Halfords, Hubrick, Bounce Foods, Snow and Rock, High5 Nutrition, Power Traveller, LSE Annual Fund and Bergans.