These Hills Are Killing Me

Before I give you some details of a four-day bike trip a friend and I took recently, I want to take a moment and say why I write these accounts of my traveling life. Of course, I want to stay in communication with you, my far-flung family and friends. As I’ve aged, this desire has only grown stronger, and in retirement I have more time to gratify it.

Beyond staying connected with you, however, is my desire to better connect with myself. Because I’ve traveled so much for pleasure in the last ten years, I’ve found that writing about my impressions and experiences helps to decode and absorb them. Finally, there is the simple need to remember things. So much happens on a daily basis that the memory of it quickly dissipates. Keeping a record in words and pictures helps me hold onto my life. I only wish I had done so years ago.

Now for the bike trip:

Biking in greater Istanbul is not popular to the extent it is in many Western cities. Our terrain is very hilly, and the auto and truck traffic is at least an irritant when not an absolute menace. Except for some narrowly defined areas, Istanbul’s government has been slow to create protected lanes for cyclists. Thus, most of my riding has been along the flat seaside paths on the Asian side of the city near where I live. These are good and useful as far as they go, but one tires of the same scenery. I miss the variety of the rides I was used to in America’s towns and countrysides.

These thoughts help explain why a while ago I enrolled my friend Erkal in doing a short tour along the Sea of Marmara on the far side of from where we live. Although new to cycling, Erkal is a serious long-distance runner in the peak of physical condition. Besides that, he is half my age, a technophile, and a native Turkish speaker, all positive attributes for this kind of undertaking.

It may have behooved us to have done a bit more research about our route up front, but once launched there was no turning back. We left before dawn on a Sunday morning, riding the first thirty kilometers through the silent streets and along Istanbul’s seaside to the ferry dock at Pendik. After an hour’s crossing, the ferry deposited us at the city of Yalova on the South Shore of the Marmara. It was here that we began the serious riding. No longer were we on a dedicated bike path but on a highway, getting busier by the minute with Sunday morning traffic, and it was by no means flat.

My long-distance biking life began in early 1995, when I bought my Trek 520 touring bike with the intention of doing a solo tour of some of the districts of Western Ireland. I trained rigorously for that adventure, riding up and down the hills of New Jersey rain or shine. My efforts paid off beautifully in Ireland where the wind, weather, and hills were an everyday challenge. On that trip I carried about forty pounds of gear in my front and rear panniers, and in a handlebar bag and on top of my rear rack. It was a tough three weeks of riding, and the satisfaction was enormous.

I was in no way trying to recapture my Irish experience on this occasion, but it was the first time since Ireland that I’ve gone on an unorganized ride carrying 15 additional pounds on the back of my bike. Nor had I trained this time. My one foray up some local hills on one of the Princes’ Islands showed me that I was not in very good shape to do a rigorous bike tour; however, I was able to allay my fears by telling myself that maybe the hills wouldn’t be too bad. Ha!

So that Sunday morning, by the time we had ridden the fifteen kilometers to the town of Çınarcık (named after the “çınar” or sycamore tree) my tongue was hanging out, and we still had a long way to go.

The idea was to ride along the sea as much as possible, and we did except for those times when the route forced us onto an inland highway that invariably climbed the foothills of the nearby mountains to our left. The worst moments of the day were on a six- or seven-k uphill stretch where I gave up riding and pushed my bike on foot. Too many times this day and the next I would struggle up a hill with my quadriceps burning as my legs turned to rubber. Through it all Erkal was a paragon of patience, encouraging his cranky, overweight, 68-year-old friend by saying that maybe the crest of the hill was just around yonder bend. I won’t dwell more on the miseries of hill climbing except to say that my condition did improve somewhat after the second day so that I was marginally more comfortable.

It’s accurate to say that the towns we passed through were less than a tourist paradise. Some, like Armutlu (pear town) and Narlı (with pomegranate) are named after fruits. Their prettiest feature was the beauty of their sea sides while, for me, their happiest was that the road through town was flat.  Some had shallow, stony beaches where plucky sunbathers did their best to make themselves comfortable. Most had a paucity of food choices limited temporarily by the strictures of Ramazan and more permanently by the lack of a more moneyed clientele that might demand a better selection.

Beer was the only alcoholic option, and it was not always in evidence. In Armutlu, where we spent our first night, the town’s only beer outlet had a defunct air with curtained windows and newspaper taped over its glass door. It was open, though, and hidden from conservative Muslim sensibilities during what remained of Islam’s holiest month.

Our lodging was pretty much of a piece with these towns’ other amenities. The high point was the Pak Hotel in the city of Gemlik. “Pak” is an old Turkish word meaning “clean”, and this hotel on the city’s main square lived up to its name with a small but spotless room and thick, new towels, air conditioning and a tiny television. It contrasted sharply with the dump in the holiday town of Erdek where we slept on our last night on the road. The Yat Hotel offered lodging of the last resort. All the better places were filled by a huge influx of Turkish tourists that had come to Erdek on the heels of Ramazan for the first day of the Bayram holiday. The Yat was a worn-out pile that had somehow survived unloved and uncared for from earlier times. Our room, with its scruffy walls and dirty linoleum floor, contained only two single beds with swaybacked mattresses. By keeping the single window open in order to air out our stinky bike clothes, we exposed ourselves to the disco music that ended only at 5 a.m.

Although I never truly regret any travel adventure I embark on, this time I was very pleased to board the large, air-conditioned ferry at the city of Bandırma for a two-hour crossing to the European Side of Istanbul from where I happily pedaled home to my smiling wife, a good shower, and a tasty dinner in my own home. It’s true that absence makes the heart grow fonder.

September 2011