Ten days have elapsed since we made our way hesitatingly out of Istanbul after nearly a month off the bikes. We were expecting hardship; cycling and camping in the cold, wet, and mountainous climes of northern Turkey.
Initially, this is what we were given. The hills were unrelenting and tough work – we were out of practice. The rain fell regularly, and we got wet and cold. But as the sprawling city fell away behind us, we found more and more friendly tea-shop owners who ushered us into warm, cosy tea rooms, sat us down by the wood-burners, threw a couple of logs on and fed us countless cups of çay (tea) until we were warm, dry and ready to face the wintry elements again, in their increasingly rugged and dramatic setting.
The beauty of the countryside made the weather more bearable, and after one particularly frosty night it improved greatly, and we have now enjoyed several days of clear blue skies, with the late autumn sun bathing the epic landscapes in a misty, enchanting light. This, and the famously hospitable and genuinely friendly attitude of Turkish people toward us as foreign travellers, has been our saving grace. More than that, it has occasionally taken us completely off-guard.
Yesterday was a fine example. We had slept the night in the office of an indoor football centre, and headed into the small town of Devrek. After checking our emails, Andy stopped to buy some fruit at a street stall. As I waited with the bikes, I was tapped on the shoulder. I turned and saw a short, ageing man drawing forth a tattered notebook and camera. A man from a nearby shop explained in English that he was a well-known local reporter who wanted to talk to us about what we were doing.
Before we knew what was happening, we were sat outside a tea shop, being fed tea and simit (circular, sesame-seed-covered breads, rather like skinny bagels), talking to our newly-found interpreter who translated our story to the journalist, an animated and excitable chap. Evidently he was something of a local legend – we found ourselves quickly surrounded by throngs of local people out walking in the town on the sunny and chill Sunday afternoon, who wanted to see what all the fuss was about.
After a leisurely interview and a few photographs, the reporter produced a video camera and proceeded to set up a number of shots of us riding round the town’s small centre. We were a major attraction by this point, with a fair-sized crowd surrounding us and following us. Camera-phones were constantly pointed in our direction. I was trying to strike a balance between participating in the interview, filming the proceedings, and being inconspicuous – a challenging task!
We were beckoned to follow the reporter and our translator, and we found ourselves being shown into a small workshop down a side-street. We had been told that we were going to a ‘stick shop’, which left a lot to the imagination. When we arrived, we found that the workshop did actually produce walking sticks. But these were no ordinary walking sticks, such as you might find by the front door of a bungalow or being used to hook a small child by the neck. No, these were some of the most elaborate walking sticks known to mankind.
A small team of craftsmen turned out these works of art as a full-time job. Evidently they were part of the small town’s heritage, and the shop a small tourist attraction. We were told that one of them was once presented to Prince Charles as a gift. I found myself wondering if his Highness had ever visited Devrek, and whether he had been treated as well as we were being treated. Each stick represented two to three weeks of labour, over a period of more than a year of seasoning, shaping, carving, painting and finishing. Many of them were adorned with equally elaborate silver handles, and almost all of them bore the image of a snake entwined about the designs and flourishes on the shaft of the stick – the snake being a symbol of the town itself.
A couple of cups of coffee later, we said goodbye and enquired if there was anywhere nearby we could sleep, as it was getting late. As quick as a flash, the reporter was on the phone again. After another whirlwind of events which were quite outside our control, we found ourselves following a police van to the local hotel, where we were informed that we had a twin room for the night, free of charge, and an evening meal in the restaurant thrown in for good measure. We couldn’t believe it – we were being treated as guests of honour! All we had stopped for was a banana…
Time now to continue – we are aiming to get back to the coast and continue Eastwards towards Georgia – hopefully in time for Christmas!