Turkey (spring of 2002 & fall of 2005)
Timing Your Visit to Turkey
Weather, the high prices of the peak tourist season and holidays are the main issues to consider. The summers can be sizzling hot, especially in the interior, so spring and fall are our preferred times to visit. Of course, many choose to come in the heat of the summer and flock to the beaches. Unlike some places though, off season isn't a good time to visit Turkey as it really shuts down tightly--lodging may not be available and if it is, there may be no heat.
Holidays are another consideration. The most important holiday for the tourist to avoid is Kurban Bayrami, as most banks shut down for the week and the prices on lodging goes up as the availability goes down. For the next few years it falls in January and December, making it easy for tourists to avoid. The month long day time fast of Ramadan (or Ramazan) is moving closer to the summer months, with it beginning on October 3, 2005, September 22, 2006, and August 11, 2007. It doesn't cause a decrease in tourist services, but non-Muslims are advised to be discreet about eating, drinking and smoking while those around them are abstaining during daylight hours. The3 day celebration at the end of Ramazan however can leave lodging and public transportation in short supply.
Unlike many countries, you must buy a 90 day visa at the border to enter Turkey. The tricky part is that you must pay for it in the currency of your homeland, which isn't always easy to get when abroad. Fortunately for us, we always tuck away a small stash of US dollars and this is the only time we use them. We have paid from $20 to $45 per person for the visas. It is difficult to determine the exact amount in advance but try checking with the Turkish Airlines website. If you don't have your country's currency I assume you could exchange Euro's for the needed currency (for a premium) at an exchange bureau in another country.
Prices & Money
Turkey is one of those countries with an annoying 2-tiered price structure. Often foreign visitors pay a hefty premium at archeological sites and museums, sometimes in the range of $10-15. Lodging is often at EU prices when the quality doesn't match the price and some taxis and merchants will charge you according to your ability to pay rather than having their prices reflect their costs. But not everyone is scalping the tourists. I generally visit a grocery store with posted per-kilogram prices on the product to ascertain a fair market price and use that as a guideline for shopping from the street vendors, some of which will be far below the grocery store prices. Keeping a good supply of small change in your pocket helps too as often the prices magically correlate with what you have, sometimes even dropping down to match.
In the off season we often got very nice accommodations for $40 per night for 2. Food prices in the markets often doesn't make sense as products like olives and olive oil that are grown and processed in Turkey are more expensive in Turkey than in other countries.
Don't fear a scam if a Turkish souvenir vendor approaches you with Euro coins in his or her hand asking you to exchange them for a 5 or 10 Euro note. The vendors accept Euro coins from tourists who haven't bothered to obtain Turkish Lira but the coins are of limited value to the vendor as the banks will not accept coins. The vendors first need to convert the Euro coins to paper money in order to exchange the Euros for Liras that they need to pay their bills. The Turks assume that any foreign tourist has Euros in their pocket, which is often true.
Turkey is bike-able but it's probably best to combine biking with some use of the buses if you want to visit several regions as the distances are daunting. The summers are too hot for reasonable biking comfort, which limits you to 4-6 week time blocks in the late spring and fall. Severe weather, tourist facility shut-downs and ferry line closures limit travel to other than the big cities to shoulder and high season as Turkey isn't really visitable in the truly off season, unlike many other countries, even with a car.
Buses are THE way to get around Turkey as the train service isn't as complete or reliable. The long distance buses are very cheap and quite upscale with new vehicles, air conditioning and beverage service. Bikes are taken on a space available basis and if one driver turns you down it won't likely be long until another bus comes by with room in the luggage compartment. Usually there is no extra charge for bikes on the big intercity buses though we have been charged extra on the smaller and more regional dolmuses.
Ferries are a good way to get to Turkey as you can roll your loaded bike on with the cars, generally at no extra charge. If you are biking in from Greece, check carefully that you can cross the border. When we tried, the best route narrowed to a freeway at the border which didn't allow bikes. We ended up taking a ferry south from Thessaloniki to Turkey instead.
The maps of Turkey are terrible. Our first year, 2002, Bill pulled together the information from 3 different maps and we still ending up trying to take roads that didn't exist and wildly underestimating total gains by thousands of feet on some days. One day we encountered 2 other cyclists and the first thing they asked was to look at our maps. Traveling farther west in Turkey in 2005 and using a German map by R. Ryborsch was less frustrating. We'll look for this map series again when heading for Turkey by watching for the diamond-shaped symbol with an "R" in it at the top of the map cover.
There are no bike routes or bike lanes in Turkey but the bad road surfaces work to your advantage in slowing the traffic. I wouldn't bike there a second time without suspension as the road surfaces can result in hours of pounding. They are fond of macadam surfaces of gravel barely bound with asphalt, but not filled in with asphalt. The surface can be like rolling on miniature cobblestones--rough enough to drop your speed by almost half that of on a smoother surface. Cobblestones on minimally prepared road beds also make for rough riding.
Plan your distances conservatively. The rough road surfaces, the nonexistence of segments of roads shown on the maps, the lack of road signs, the relentless up and down terrain, the lack of shelter from the heat for rest stops, and strong winds can all play havoc with your average speed like nowhere else we have cycled.
If you find yourself on a truck route, as we did from Pergamum to the Istanbul area, watch and see if the traffic volume is lower from late morning into the early afternoon. That seemed to be the case on our roads in 2005 so we made sure to be cranking miles then. We'd stop for a light early lunch around 10:30 and enjoy riding in the reduced traffic. We'd stop a few hours later to eat again when the traffic was picking up.
Generally the winds blow north to south so plan your trip accordingly. We changed our route in 2002 just because of the winds. In 2005 we ended up riding into the winds because of a border crossing problem from Greece into Turkey that required a last minute route change. It wasn't horrible, but our average speed really dropped in the afternoons when the winds kicked up.
The wolf-killing sheep dogs and other guard dogs (and a few of their kin living as strays) are a serious threat to cyclists as you travel east in the interior. We had 1 harrowing day where we had encounters with no less than 12 dogs, including the one's with nails protruding from their leather collars to protect them against wolves. This was on the road to Bogazkale to see the ancient Hittite site Hattusa. We were repeatedly assured that the serious dogs were the Kangals and that they wouldn't appear until we were farther east to Siva, but we were terrified by some of these lesser sheep dogs and wouldn't even think of cycling farther east.
The Turks are very gracious hosts and you may be invited to join picnics under the trees or into a shop for tea. Consider carrying dried fruit, nuts or sweets so you can reciprocate if food is being spread out. Finding durable, nonperishable goodies that survive days on a bike is challenging and those were our best ideas.
Istanbul Bike Shop
We found a row of bike shops in Istanbul roughly between Galata Bridge and Taksim Square on Galipdede Caddesi below Galata Tower. One in particular was at #131. I believe the district is Karakoy and I believe the name of the shop is Bahar or Bahar Hirdavat Koll.sti. (Even having the business card, it's hard to be sure.) Their phone is 0212 244 47 15 and their e-address is firstname.lastname@example.org. When we popped in there was a fluent English speaking young man who would have provided us with bike boxes or packed our bikes, though our plans changed and we left Istanbul by ferry rather than flying.
What to See
Turkey is huge but much of "the good stuff" is along the coastline from Istanbul to Antayla in the south, with the Izmir to Antayla stretch having the highest concentration of fascinating sights. The historical and archeological sights in Turkey are fabulous--better than even Greece for Greek and Hellenistic ruins.
Istanbul to Izmir is a little short on sights with our destinations including:
-Istanbul, worth a trip in itself [a week]
-Troy for the ancient history buffs [1-2 hours]
-Gallipoli, WWI battlefields (near and dear to the heart of the Turks, Aussies & Kiwis) [3-4 hours]
-Pergamum, a major city in Hellenistic times [1-3 hours]
The coastline from Izmir to just beyond Antalya is stuffed with wonderful sights to choose from and our favorites are:
-Izmir for its museums
-Pamukkale travertine's / Hierapolis ruins
-Olympos [be there at dusk for the best look at the spontaneously combusting gases]
Our top picks in central Turkey were:
-Cappadocia area including Goreme and the surrounds; Ihlara Valley; Derinkuyu [days or weeks]
-Hattusa, the Hittite site north of Cappadocia [1-2 days]
-Catal Hoyuk near Konya (not much to see but important for ancient history buffs) [1 hour]
-Konya's shrine of Mevlana (Rumi the Sufi poet) [less than 1 hr]
-Ankara's Museum of Anatolian Civilizations
Our "Next Time" list of sights we've missed in Turkey includes:
Mt Nemrut in eastern Turkey
Antakya or Antioch-ad-Ortontes near Syria for the grand Roman mosaics (and maybe some tidbits about its role
as a terminus for the Silk Road)
Sightseeing in Istanbul
A week gives enough time to be very thorough, though you can certainly see most of the best sights in 3 or 4 days. If you are like us and read museum displays like you are reading a book, allow 2 full days for the Archeology Museum. There is one large building with multiple floors, a single floor in a smaller building, and the small but recently reopened "Tile Kiosk" of Islamic ceramics. All displays and background information panels are bilingual with English. The exhibits are fresh and thoughtfully prepared. The gems here are the finds on the top floor from places that Americans can't travel to, like Syria, Palestine, and Iraq. These countries were under Ottoman control when the 'digging craze' hit in the late 1880's and many of the finds were sent back to Istanbul. Pack a picnic lunch and take your breaks outside in the common area with the odd bits of ancient marble columns and blocks. If you are in a hurry or really don't like spending hours in museums, its worth the price of admission to spend 5 minutes looking at the Alexander Sarcophagus on the ground floor of the main building. It isn't Alexander the Great's sarcophagus but that of a Phoenician king with Alexander's battles beautifully carved in on the sides. It's huge, it's well preserved, it's well displayed and it's in a class of its own.
In Istanbul we stayed at the Hotel Erboy, Ebusuud Caddesi #32, www.erboyhotel.com tel: 90 212 5133750 and were very satisfied. A double room in September 2005 was 50 Euros or about $60. It was recommended by our friend Mulvey with the comment "everything works." Lonely Planet also recommended it as a good value and good location though was quite disparaging about the decor. We had zero complaints about the decor and would happily stay there again. We appreciated the no smoking rooms. It was a 'good sleep' in that the mattresses were in good condition, the linens ample (not always true in Turkey), the curtains blocked the light, and the neighborhood was quiet. The acoustics in the halls weren't the best but we had the air conditioner on at a low level which provided just enough white noise to smooth out the noise. The rooms are small but the layout isn't like many where we were always tripping over ourselves. Try asking for one of their larger rooms as there are at least 2 sizes (or a bigger window if they think they are all the same size.) BBC World Service on the TV plus DeutscheWelle for alternating news and stories in German and English were welcome. Breakfast is included in the price. The lack of a mini-bar for refrigeration and a "no food in the room" policy were minor nuisances. Reasonably priced internet access is available in the lobby and free, though kind of shaking wifi is also available. The location is terrific as it is a short walk to about half the things on our sightseeing list and walking distance to all of the others. They happily stashed our bikes indoors, which is often the case in Turkey, and have a left luggage area. I believe they also have a free airport shuttle, which we didn't investigate.
Indoor Lodging for Cyclists
Lodging information is hard to come by as tourist information services are a rare thing outside the resort areas and big cities--which means in all of the places you want to be. A good guide book is a must and we find that for all of their shortcomings, that the regional organization of the Lonely Planet guide books work the best for bike route planning. But of course guide books are written assuming that you are traveling bigger distances than you travel by bike so you'll be left to your own to find lodging in big sections of your route.
Bill always plans the route with lodging in mind so in Turkey he asks and asks again "Is there lodging in this town?" Any English or German speaker that might know would be invited to look at his map and be asked "In this town? How about in this town? One or two? Many?" And of course, he tries to get more than one opinion for each town. This isn't fool proof. In one town nothing was under $100 per night. The next town that he thought too small to ask about was where all the budget places were located. Another time we were told that there were 2 hotels but once in town we were told there was only one. Fortunately it looked like this hotel had new owners or management as a few rooms had recently been upgraded or we likely would have taken a bus to a bigger town rather than stay there.
Lodging woes are compounded by the lack of advertising. There were no signs on the road indicating lodging in the above town with the one hotel and no signs in the town itself. In fact, there was no signage on the hotel either. We asked at the police station and the incognito hotel happened to be across the street.
The quality of lodging varies wildly from big box buildings for sun seekers on package holidays in the resort towns to charming rooms designed and operated by ex-pat's from northern Europe to modest Turkish worker's 'motels'. We've stayed in them all. In one little place on our 2002 trip, the only electrical outlet was in the hall and we were served breakfast on a table in the dirt yard in front of the souvenir shop. At another workers hotel all of the men (I was the only women in the place) left the doors to their rooms open during the day while they were working. But mosquitoes were the only 'crawly' thing we ever encountered in any place we stayed.
Traveling in the low season months of September and October in 2005, most nights we paid between $23 and $45 for a room for the 2 of us with a private bath. Many rooms also had air conditioning and TV at those prices (30-60TL). It was hard to predict what a room would look like based on the price. In some non-touristy towns we paid at the high end for average rooms and in some tourist hot-spots (like Pammukale) we scored a charming room at the low end. Of course, during high season the prices could be much higher and the biggest cities were more expensive too.
We carried camping gear in 2002 during our long stay in Turkey but never used it. We were traveling in late spring and most of the campgrounds were not yet open for the season. A time or 2 that we could have camped, we opted to get a room as we were laying over and wanted greater security for our bikes and gear for daytime sightseeing outings. And for the most part, lodging was cheap and the mosquitoes ever-present so sleeping 'in' was hard to turn down.
We don't free camp, so I can't comment on free camping from experience. We thought about it and decided not to as we just weren't sure about the safety of it in isolated areas. We just couldn't get a read on that aspect of being in Turkey. If I were going to camp on the cheap I think I'd ask at a village restaurant or look for a property owner to ask about using their space. I would feel safer in Turkey being under someone's wing as both honor and hospitality are important cultural values. I would carry gifts to share if they didn't ask for payment, like nuts or sweets.
The Port Towns of Sigacik & Gulluk Between Izmir and Bodrum
If you are heading south from Izmir along the coast, turn off the main road at the city of Seferihisar to the more touristy port town of Sigacik, which is about 60 km from Izmir. We were there the first few days in October 2005 when most of the tourists were gone and found it heavenly. The lovely little port and the village with its medieval walls are tucked in between low hills. The ruins of the ancient of Teos are a couple of more miles down the road if you need a better reason for the detour. Sigacik is one of those delightful places in Turkey where time seems to standstill and we had an incredibly hard time leaving. Our leisurely departure time of 9:30 slipped until after 11 and the unplanned detour to Teos meant we didn't get on the road until after 3--and we didn't care. We stayed up the hill from the harbor at the modern Dali's Motel (tel 0232 745 7885) for under $40 for the 2 of us. I am sure in high season they are more and in the off season they cut back to only weekends. Great beds, English is spoken by nice people, friendly dogs, a large swimming pool and a terrific view that we couldn't take our eyes off of.
Gulluk 25 north of Bodrum along the coast was another delightful find. It has some big resort hotels and is likely hopping with tourists in the summer, but we found it to be pleasing in October. Its got enough tourist facilities to make it pleasant: an assortment of hotels and pansyons; a flashy new Migros supermarket; a bank machine for cash; and frequent bus service. It also has a nicely developed pedestrian walk along its curvy shoreline for pleasant strolling. In addition, it is an active port for both local fishing boats and for simultaneously loading 2 big ships with bauxite. In Gulluk you can sunbath by a resort swimming pool or go watch the guys watching the fishermen down at the harbor.
Don't drink it in Turkey. We buy bottled water and carry chlorine tablets to cover us in a pinch. There are many water troughs on the Turkish roads, often with a metal communal cup chained to it, but don't count on it being safe for outsider's guts. They can be a good resource, especially if you plan on free camping, but carry a means of sanitizing the water.
We did use tap water for brushing our teeth and rinsing our produce without any GI difficulty.
The irony is that internet access is usually cheaper, easier and better for tourists in the less developed countries of Europe than the among the upper crust crowd. The reason is that more of the people in the most affluent countries have computers in their homes and so the tourist-accessible services aren't as good. There are of course many exceptions to this broad, sweeping statement, but it reflects our general experience. So for example, internet access tends to go better in Turkey than it does in Austria.
The Turkish internet shop owners were very helpful in Bill's various efforts to connect our laptop, even to the point of bringing him a pillow to sit on when a short cable had him sitting on the floor. They tend not to be so security obsessed and so firewalls and other security measures didn't hamper connections like in other countries. Most shop owners have a very "can do" attitude when we walk in with a laptop and often if the person on duty doesn't know exactly what to do, they'll let Bill give it a try on his own. Connection speeds are usually as good as anywhere else.
WiFi is starting to appear in the medium priced hotels in Turkish cities and is usually free.
Women & Social Propriety
The Turks, as many Islamic people, are very modest, especially outside the resort cities. We both wore long sleeved shirts and long pants all of the time and never any Lycra bike shorts. Bill was careful not to be seen without a shirt. On sightseeing days, I always worn a scarf around my neck to cover my hair should we feel welcome to poke our heads in a mosque. Touching and other signs of affection are common between those of the same-sex but not of the opposite sex, even if married.
As a woman, I always looked to the local men to take my cues as to what their bias towards women was. Some men would easily make eye contact, initiate conversations and shake hands with me; others would leave the area until Bill returned. On buses, know that men and women usually don't sit together if they are strangers and sometimes not even when they are married. On crowded mini-buses, we joined in the dance of constantly changing seats to create the maximum seating opportunities while everyone struggled to observe the "boy sits next to boy, girl sits next to girl unless you know each other rule". (If Bill moved to create a safe seat next to me for a boarding woman and she got off at the next stop, older men would stand and not take the now vacant seat. next to me)
There was plenty in Turkey that raised my feminist ire but being a guest in a country that prizes hospitality didn't seem like the time or place to push my beliefs and I tried to respect theirs as much as possible. Foreigners deviating from their norms aren't hassled but we tried to fit in knowing that we were likely blundering enough as it was. Only one Turkish woman button-holed me to talk about the issue of women's rights in Turkey vs the US.