I had reached Turkey, the place where continents, religions, and civilisations meet. A country where I wandered through the narrow streets of Sultanahmet, occasionally catching a glimpse of the Blue Mosque’s towering minarets while dodging boys running endless orders of tea to bazaar vendors; It was a country that allowed me to explore the underground cities and Tatooine-like landscape of Cappadocia; and, after crossing the Bosporus, it was the place where I began to follow the path of the Silk Road, passing it’s ancient towns and caravanserais that would guide me all the way to China. Yet, as great as these experiences were, they are not the reason why I remember my time in Turkey so fondly. The real reason comes from humbler origins.
The first town I came to established the trend. It was small, stretching just a few kilometers in length; but it took me over 2 hours to get through due to the overwhelming hospitality of its inhabitants. The first incident took place in a bakery where, after failing to buy a loaf of bread (the guy wouldn’t accept my money), I was invited to join him and his colleagues to drink some little tulip-shaped glasses of tea. Several hundred meters down the road I found myself in a similar situation: after asking a bunch of old guys playing backgammon for directions, I was invited to join them in the shade of the cafe with yet another little tulip shaped glass of strong, sugary Turkish tea in front of me. Repeat this sequence of events a few more times and that’s why I reached the other side of town 2 hours later than I had expected. I can’t remember the name of that town, but I remember my time there way more enthusiastically than when I try and recall the marvels of the Aya Sophia. Likewise, I’m more likely to remember the sound of clinking glasses as people stirred in at least 3 sugar cubes into those little tulip glasses than the call to prayer sang from the Blue Mosque’s Imam.A closed fist with the thumb sticking up, gestured towards your mouth was the usual invitation to join someone for tea; it was an invitation was made just about everywhere, but nowhere worthy of any guidebook. I enjoyed extended breaks in countless petrol stations, tire shops, and villages that were not on my map that kept me in a constant caffeine and sugar high as I crossed from Istanbul, over the Central Anatolian Plateau via Cappadocia towards the Caucuses. Just as well, really, because it turns out Turkey is bloody hilly. The conversation, relying on hand gestures and the little Turkish I picked up was usually the same: Where are you from? Where are you going? Another tea? Alone? Married? Why Not? Another tea? No? How about lunch?It never took long to have company whenever I stopped. Another village, although once again nameless, will always remain in my memory. I had just pulled up to a cafe in need of another hit as my sugar/caffeine levels were crashing. As usual, it took only 5 minutes sitting down before someone gave me a handful of ripe cherries from the orchards that surrounded the village. Not long after I was beckoned over to join a group of guys sitting at an adjacent table. One was in the military, another was a truck driver, they lived as far away as Istanbul but had returned to their village to help their family with the harvest. I was warned that it would rain later and, through google translate, they kindly informed me that “you will stay here tonight”. It seemed there wasn’t any point arguing, and after a further hour of drinking tea I was invited to my first dinner at the home of the person who spoke best English. Second dinner was provided in the form of a barbecue underneath a road bridge and each activity that evening was bookended by a trip to the cafe for a few more glasses of tea. Finally I was given a bed for the night in one of the villager’s homes. I left the following day, about 20 hours later than I expected, with a pannier full of cherries as the parting gift.For me, Turkey was, and remains, the country of warm welcomes. I have heard that Iranian hospitality is even better but this experience has been closed to me, thanks to my country’s foreign policy. Turkey is a welcoming country to the point of inconvenience, as I had to hitch a ride to make up for lost time spent over tea to ensure I could reach Central Asia before my visas date expired. If there were any lessons learned, it’s this: if you want to go cycling and do long uninterrupted days on the saddle, don’t come to Turkey.I think I’ll visit again 🙂
Next Chapter: Cycling to China: Georgia