Turkey - the Black Sea Region

We arrived at the Turkish border on a sunny Sunday morning. It was relatively warm for the end of December and we were looking forward to a nice day of cycling. The border guard smiled at us, stamped our passport without any hesitation and released us with a friendly: Hosgeldiniz! (Welcome!). Ahead of us lay a two lane highway with a wide cold shoulder for us to comfortably and safely cycle on. For the next 400km we would be following the Black Sea coastline, past vast fields of tea and along hazelnut plantations.

Our first evening we pitched the tent directly on the beach. Sitting between an old volleyball net and an even older lifeguard stand, we watched small fisher boats glide past. I was motivated to make a fire and while I was gathering driftwood, Sera was preparing the tent.

The Black Sea region is a popular holiday destination, but not during the winter months where its pretty much deserted. We basically had the whole beach to ourselves.

Maybe the reason why there's not many tourists in winter is the high amount of rainfall. On the second day we soon found ourselves cycling in a light drizzle. And the forecast for the next days indicated much more rain to come.

Only the cormorants and seagulls seemed to not be bothered by the rain. We saw large cormorant colonies all along the coast. Even though they are birds, cormorants are very good swimmers. Unlike most water birds, their feathers are not coated with a wax like substance so their feathers get soaked. We often saw them sitting on trees or small islands, drying their feathers. But how does this work in the constant rain?

We wanted to reach the city of Trabzon this day, but after 115km of cycling, decided to call it a day. We were only 15km away from the city, but it was still drizzling and the light traffic had turned into the usual evening rush hour frenzy. But where to sleep? Camping seemed impossible, as the coastline was plastered with houses and I disliked the rain. And all the cheap hostels were in Trabzon itself. We entered a hotel. In all the countries beforehand, rates in hotels were between 7 Euro (SE-Asia) to 20 Euro (Kazakhstan). The friendly clerk smiled as we entered, "160 lira please". Uff, that's 40 Euro! Definitely above our budget. We cycled on, but the traffic got even denser and the last light of the day dissapeared. We were running out of options. A little further up, I spotted a small restaurant by the ocean which had a large and now empty outside space next to it. In the front was a small stage and the whole thing was covered by a roof. Brilliant, just what we were looking for! The restaurant owners looked at us in amazement (will we ever get used to this?) and signaled us to go ahead and spend the night "on stage".

It was the end of December and Christmas was only two days away. However, in a Muslim country it's hard to find the Christmas spirit. In fact, everywhere we looked, even in the tiniest villages, we would see mosques with their characteristic minarets. Five times a day a recording would sound and call to prayer. Nothing really unusual or new, we had been cycling through Muslim countries for the last couple of months. But what did bewilder us was the large number of mosques. Even the tiniest of villages had one, maybe even two mosques. Through a google search we found out that Erdogan had 30'000 new mosques built over the last ten years. I'm not sure if every citizen is really satisfied with what their tax-money is being spent on.

On the 23th of December, we arrived in a medium town called Fatsa. It was raining and my motivation to cycle much further was below 0. From the corner of my eye I spotted a small bistro with three bicycles parked in front. Maybe a person who likes cycling and can help us with accommodation, I thought. Inside worked a middle aged man, with short graying hair and a pointy beard on his chin. He was wearing colorful sneakers, jeans, a light gray sweater and a down vest. Typical attire for a sporty person in Europe, but very unusual in Turkey, especially in the Black Sea region.

Mahmut spoke some English and made very tasty toasts, so we ended up sitting with him, drinking tea and talking for the next three hours. It was clear quite quickly that he wasn't very fond of religion nor the current government. He explained how things had changed and as women disappeared behind head scarfs or burkas, so did the acceptance of many Turks towards others. At the same time he loved Turkey, it was his home and his friends lived there. He didn't want to leave, but simultaneously he felt foreign and unhappy. He was the first Turk we got to know who felt like this, but unfortunately not the last. Erdogan is doing a terrific job at splitting society and demolishing tolerance.

Around the corner from Mahmuts' bistro, was a hostel located. However, this hostel was government property and meant for teachers or other government employees. Mahmut brought us there, but we were very unsure if we would be allowed to stay. Of course it was important for us to be married, which we aren't, but a convincing "yes" solved this hurdle. Still the employees were a bit unsure what to do. After some waiting and explaining our trip they allowed us to stay. It was a simple place, with very interesting "photos" on the walls.

After breakfast the next morning we were surprised by two visitors. Mahmut had told friends of his about us, a middle-aged couple, both doctors. They showed up in the hostel with great curiosity and declared they wanted to take us out for lunch and go visit an ancient church. It was the 24th of December after all, and the old abandoned church was the closest remnant of christianity left in the region.

Nilufer spoke German like a native. She had grown up in Germany, went to school there but returned to Turkey with her family at 15 years old. Her husband, Husnu, spoke some English. For lunch they ordered a mountain of Turkish specialties, and while they only ate a little we tried to finish everything as we hate throwing away food. Exhausted from the exhuberant feast, they dropped us at the hostel in the afternoon, but invited to pick us up for dinner again later.

Overall we spent three days in Fatsa, mainly eating mountains of food with Nilufer and Husnu, or joking around with Mahmut. It was sad not to be home with my family over Christmas, but it was comforting to meet these three wonderful people. Looking back now, I guess they were also happy to spend some time with foreigners to whom they could express their thoughts and worries, without being afraid of being turned in.

The day we started cycling again, the dark rain clouds had almost vanished. It was time to say good bye once again and continue the journey. Once again I asked myself if we would ever see the three again, when Nilufer invited us to spend New Years with her and her large family in Ankara. Ahead of us lay 520km and several climbs up to the Anatolian plateau to 1000 masl. Should be possible in six days we thought and full of ambition mounted the bicycles and pedaled off.

On our journey we are raising money for the Thin Green Line Foundation, a foundation that supports rangers and their families. Help us support this fantastic foundation by making a small donation, even 5 Euro can be enough to make a difference! Click here

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