Melons, mountains and Turkish delights

Photos and words by Alastair Bland

The towering mosque stood ahead of me, marking the town square, as I crossed the bridge and entered the village, famished, sunburned, and unaware that federal agents were after me. In the plaza, the men stared with interest as I eyed the storefronts for a fruit market, looking for a melon and willing to hold out if I didn’t find one—for I wasn’t going to squander my building appetite on anything less than the best of Turkish delights.

I detected a scent trail of tropical perfume on the air, followed it around a corner, and found a four-foot heap of yellow-and-green melons in the bed of a pickup. One Turkish lira per kilo, the vendor told me—roughly 40 cents per pound—and as I sniffed the fruits for quality, another man appeared out of a hardware store. He yelled something my way about the Jandarma, the military police. The gathering cluster of men and boys looked to him, then back to me, and began murmuring in tones of gossip. I understood only that authorities had seen me pass by on my bike some miles back, along the river, and had called ahead to ask about me. I deciphered nothing more, and I asked the fruit vendor, who spoke a trace of English, what was up. He shook his head and told me, “Just go.”

I bought my melon, some white cheese for dinner, and some almonds to get me through the afternoon. Seeing a mountain pass ahead on my map, I asked for directions from the men crowded around me. Predictably, they were eager to help and described the way—a bad dirt road through the forest—and I pedaled on. I took a wrong turn, discovered my error after a mile, rolled back downhill, and found what seemed to be the right track.

The road led steeply up jungle slopes of wild chestnut and cherry trees and plantings of tea shrubs, the local agricultural mainstay. The day grew late, and I could see that I would find no level place to lay out my tarp unless I reached the pass. I also had a feeling that the Jandarma incident was still in progress. I wondered just how and when the authorities would materialize and why they cared about me.

A truck rumbled down the road ahead and passed with a friendly honk. A moment later another vehicle came around a bend and into view—a shiny gray sedan. It turned sharply into my path to block the road, and three men in clean urban dress stepped out. They wore guns at their hips.

One showed his identification and said firmly, “Police.” The three surrounded me as one asked, “Israel?” They leaned in darkly, ready to pounce. “No, America,” I answered, sensing a misunderstanding. “U.S.A.” “Passport?” I produced the document and saw their excitement fade. “Ah, U.S.A.,” said one meekly before showing the others and handing it back. As his partners returned quietly to the car, the driver explained to me in a blend of our languages that Israelis were prohibited from travel in Turkey ever since Israel’s military police attacked an aid flotilla headed for the Gaza Strip in late May, killing nine Turkish activists. He mimed having his hands cuffed and said, “Ka-chink.”

We shook hands as he wished me luck on this mountain. Tilting his head up the slope at the dark forest, he said, “You have a big ride.” He hardly knew. I had this hill plus a thousand more over the next nine weeks. I kept on that evening, tires spinning on the steep gravel, sweat running down my legs, aiming for the summit and racing the fall of night. I arrived at a magnificent vista to see the sun sinking into the Black Sea as a brilliant full moon rose into the August sky. I spread out my tarp and sleeping bag and cut into my juicy melon. The evening’s prayer call meandered up the mountain, the same tune arriving in echoes and rounds from different villages around me. It was an aimless melody of quarter tones and a billion listeners—for this was the land of Islam.

I had flown to Istanbul last summer with my bike in a box, but that time I went west. This year I went east. I arrived on August 10th, slept in the airport, and immediately embarked on an 18-hour bus ride, a hellish test of endurance after a 20-hour stint of airplanes and layovers. I stepped off the bus in Trabzon, an ugly industrial town on the eastern Black Sea coast, and from there I climbed into the green peaks of the Kaçkar Mountains. The cloudy sky threatened rain that afternoon, and higher along the winding mountain road, I entered a drizzle; though dusk was hours away, it grew gloomy and dark.

I was traveling with no tent—an old habit of mine, meant to simplify life but which sometimes bit me in the butt—and rain would be a logistical consideration each night when the time to set up camp arrived. I had been told that over the pass, on the south slope of the Kaçkars, it was bone-dry, and I was determined to get there. At the mile-high pass on top, I found a frightening highway tunnel with no shoulder leading through the mountain, which continued up another 500 feet into the wet mists. I flipped on my headlight and rear blinker, prepped myself with a deep breath, looked over my shoulder, and charged through at a sprint. A breeze caught me and shot me along at 30 miles per hour, and I exited the other end into the brilliant warm sun.

Amazed, I stopped to look back at the peaks above me; fingers of clouds born in the Black Sea reached over the crags, clawing at the rocks, but withered in the dry air. They couldn’t touch me on the south side. I slept by a stream under a ceiling of stars, and the next day, at last, after three days of grueling travel, I finally fell into the familiar rhythm of the good life: bike touring.

For a week in these Kaçkar Mountains I pedaled my Surly CrossCheck dawn to dusk among alpine peaks and dry valleys. Each night I slept where I pleased, in pine groves and meadows, and in the mornings I bathed at the village fountains before daylight, then rode on in my aimless meandering way.

In a life so unmarred by agendas, the traveler must invent his or her own worthy pursuits— and I had several goals. I wanted to see a brown bear, and on a dirt road near Yusufeli, above a valley of rice paddies and apricot orchards, I followed a set of tracks for a quarter-mile but never saw their maker. I also hunted each afternoon for homemade dairy products and occasionally found my way into a village house where cheese, milk, or yogurt was made.  Melons, too, were a top-notch priority, and every day I prowled the bazaars and fruit stands in search of the perfect specimens—melons so sweet and perfumy that, even when packed in my saddlebag and moving against a headwind, I could smell them as I pedaled.

Life went spinning from blissful to bizarre when I entered the Republic of Georgia. I won’t dwell upon the old-fashioned treatment of women here, or the superstitions, or the appalling litter dumped along the roads—but the nation’s terrifying highway ethics need a word. Sensible, educated, socially agreeable Georgians turn mad when they sit behind the wheel of a car. They lose all sense of courtesy and will honk impatiently at little boys kicking soccer balls in the street, old ladies hauling home the groceries, and slower vehicles— which they pass without caution.

On the highway, drivers will often force oncoming cars onto the shoulder, and for 20 days here I never forgot what would happen to me if I got caught in such a sandwich of steel and spinning tires. Take a Georgian out of the car, though, and the traveler may never find a more hospitable person. In the villages, shouts of “Hello!” and “Come! Come! Sit!” often followed me as I pedaled, and almost every day I was coerced into sitting with jobless men by the road and drinking chacha, the local booze. Several times, well-meaning folks nearly dragged me into their homes for the night. I appreciated their good intentions, but didn’t care for the fuss of beds, sheets and blankets when camping under clear skies was an option. Nor did I enjoy having to stumble in the dark over a gauntlet of sleeping cousins and uncles on my way outside the house to pee.

After one such night, in the town of Roxi, while my host family and I ate melons and grapes for breakfast on the porch and drank homemade wine (it was noon in China, not that it matters in Georgia), I mentioned that I had been camping out each night, with just a sleeping bag. “No, no, no!” said my host adamantly, a man of 32 years appalled at the thought of sleeping out of the house. His niece, who spoke English, explained that wild animals were a considerable hazard here. “It is too dangerous outside,” she said. She told me that a village in eastern Georgia had recently been seized by wolves. I doubted it, and asked for details, which weren’t available. I said, “I think that bears and wolves make the world a more beautiful place.” The family exploded in laughter, and so I left, a homeless American on a bicycle who sought the companionship of predatory mammals. Crazy.

I returned, rather gladly, to Turkey after three weeks in Georgia. I put my bike on the first bus I found going south, to the Mediterranean—and no, I didn’t go for the beaches. I generally scorn beaches, and the day I spend a vacation in a plastic chair in the sand is the day I’ve died. Instead, I stuck to the high country of the Toros Mountains, an east-west range that skirts the entire Turkish Mediterranean coast. Periodically, I dropped to sea level for a day, but almost always, before night, I found a mountain road back into the summits.

One afternoon, I tackled a 6,000-foot ascent over 25 miles, starting at the beach town of Anamur. The roadside springs and fountains, usually a reliable source of clean water, were inexplicably all dry, and my bottles ran empty 2,000 feet below the pass. I flagged down a car to score a refill and wound up camping in a rock quarry after just several apples and some peanuts for dinner. Still ravenous, still thirsty, I knew nonetheless that somehow, I was living the good life.

September passed quickly in these Toros Mountains. I pedaled all day, every day, averaging 50 to 80 miles and usually climbing at least a vertical mile by sundown. The mountain scenery was often more beautiful than words can describe, but I’ll try: Late one evening as I rolled through a comfortable, level pine forest about a mile above sea level, I arrived abruptly at a sheer drop of 2,000 vertical feet, the small highway veering sharply left to skirt the cliff’s face. Thirty miles distant, through the canyons and cloud, I saw the sea and the resort town of Alanya. Mists swirled in the void before me, fingers of fog curled around me, and the shafts of golden sunlight that broke through the clouds looked sturdy enough to walk on.

I’ve heard it said a hundred times—and so have you—that Holland is a cyclist’s paradise because of its unremitting flatness. But what would that make of the Toros Mountains? The summer ran late. By October there were still peaches on the trees in some canyons, the fig crop was in full force, and I hadn’t worn long sleeves or pants for seven weeks. Nights were almost balmy, but on the morning of October 1st I woke up at 4,000 feet of elevation in the apple orchard hills above Lake E─čirdir—and it was downright chilly. I put on my gloves for the first time in two months. The next morning was even colder, and I cut holes in my clean socks and pulled them on as knee- and arm-warmers. Two days later, I began wearing my rain jacket to cut the morning wind chill. And on October 7th the storm hit me.

That night, in the pines along a mountain creek not far from Sariveliler, I cinched my tarp up between the trees as a rain shelter, for there had been squalls in the afternoon. I awoke at midnight to a pat-pat-pat on the tarp overhead: raindrops. I felt proudly untouchable, a resourceful homesteader, dry and comfortable under my makeshift shelter. I snuggled deeper into my dry sleeping bag as the drops continued to fall, growing heavier.

As the water drained off my tarp, a trickle began to creep into my sleeping zone. It swelled into a steady stream as the rain intensified, and water began to pool beneath me, seeping into my bag. I sat up, thinking fast of how I might stay dry. Lightning flashed and lit the trees, and claps of thunder followed instantly. The icy wind whipped the edges of my tarp, the rain entered from the side, and the storm still grew stronger. I leapt from my bag to cut the tarp down and wrap it around me like a shawl, and in several seconds of exposure my clothes were soaked.

Freezing in the mountain air, I slipped back into my wet sleeping bag and shimmied over to a cluster of tall pines where I sat in a heap, tarp over my head. Rainwater leaked through and down my back, and I shivered away the hours. Miraculously, I floated away to that wonderful land called sleep, where I had vivid dreams of dryness and of morning. My dinner melon made its way through me, waking me several times to use the woods, and each time it was still dark and raining as I slipped out of and then back into my cold, clammy sleeping bag to resume the most miserable night of my life.

Time seemed to crawl painfully slowly that night, but its ceaseless flow would nonetheless bring an end to this exhausting ordeal, and the moment would arrive when I finally awoke to see sunlight. Time also would land me in Cyprus three days later, and a week after that, in San Francisco. Months would go by eventually, and years, and eventually all of this—Georgia, Turkey, the Toros Mountains— would be a dusty relic of the past, forgotten among memories. On these thoughts, from the damp depths of my sleeping bag, I determined that I would return to Turkey someday, to resume this aimless life of exploring strange lands, alone, on a bicycle, sleeping outside.

Perhaps I would see a bear. And I might bring a tent.

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This piece originally appeared in Bicycle Times Issue #10. To purchase a copy of this issue, please visit our online store, and to make sure you never miss an issue, order a subscription and help us keep this great content rolling.

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