Sunday, December 12, 2010

Aliağa, Turkey

Friends: I knew it was cold yesterday morning, cold enough for me to put on tights for the first time since I came down from the mountains three weeks ago, but I didn't realize it was cold enough for snow.

A wicked northerly wind had blown in the afternoon before, plummeting the temperatures and bringing with it a light drizzle during the night. The wind was even colder and more fierce and ferocious the next day, lashing into me when I left the forest I was camped in and hit the road. It was a few minutes before I could begin riding, as I had a fair bit of mud to scrape off my tires and pry out of my brakes and from my cleats after pushing my bike through a muddy fıeld.

I made use of a trickle of water streaming down the slight incline where I met up with the paved road to help clean my bike shoes. I didn't enjoy one bit being pelted by the harshly driven, cold rain. A cold rain is bad enough, but even worse when it is accompanied by a merciless head wind.

In less than a mile, as I gained altitude, the rain turned into sleet and then snow. I didn't expect this at all. If it became snow I could brush it off and not be so wet, but it remained a nasty mix of sleet and rain and snow lashing me at a 45 degree angle. Though it didn't gather on the road, it was accumulating along side it and at the higher elevations. I quickly realized that I needed to put booties over my shoes, as my feet were growing cold and damp. It was a couple miles before I came to the shelter of a gas station, almost too late, but the coverings still made a difference, the first time I had needed them.

Izmir, Turkey's third largest city with a population of 2.7 million, was less than twenty miles away. With it looking dark and foreboding and no let up in the weather, I was reconciled to making it a short day and seeking refuge at the first affordable hotel I came upon.

I was soon swallowed up by the urban sprawl giving me some protection from the wind, but that made little difference in the chill that was penetrating to my bones. I passed a pickup truck making a delivery that had come down from the mountains. It was full of snow. A crowd of boys had descended upon it as it unloaded and were pelting each other with snow balls. I was lucky they didn't spot me.  I was looking for warm shelter of any sort to retreat to so I could regain feeling in my fingers. A grocery store had to do. I took my time wandering the aisles, waiting until the last minute to buy my daily pound-and-a-half container of yogurt, not wishing to hold anything cold in my hands.

It was just another mile to the heart of the city and the hotel district. I stopped at the first one I came to, a dive of a place, just as I prefer.  It had no heat, but it was dry and they let me bring my bike in and the bedroom included a stack of blankets and there was hot water in the shower down the hall. The bed, as in the only other hotel I've stayed at on this trip, wasn't meant for six-footers, but at least it didn't have a frame, so my ankles could dangle over the end in my down sleeping bag.

I lay huddled under the blankets for an hour eating and warming up before venturing out into the city looking for warmth. This was much like Wuhan where I was a year ago in China waiting to meet up with Stephen when it was hit by a freak cold spell and snow storm and only the most expensive of hotels had heat.

Like there it was hard to find a place with heat. I walked about trying to generate warmth, stopping at little cafes heated only by the open-sided heating elements roasting the spinning hunks of meat that were sliced for doners. Some went for as little as a lira, the cheapest I had encountered anywhere in Turkey. I was also thrilled to discover some of the sidewalk vendors selling sesame rolls from carts also had hard boiled eggs, another first in these travels. I stocked up.

A large shopping mall along Izmir's huge bay didn't even have heat, nor did the small restaurants that lined the streets. Everyone walked about with hunched up shoulders, tightly holding their arms to their sides, trying to retain some heat. Dogs lay tightly curled up in balls in whatever nook they could find protected from the wind.  An Internet cafe was warm enough that I could take off my hat and unzip my jacket, though not remove it. A small English language bookstore I searched out to buy a newspaper was retaining some warmth and had a couple of chairs for reading. The owner didn't object to me plopping down for a spell after I purchased a newspaper. The storm was front page news, as it had hit Istanbul the day before, blanketing it with snow. The bookshop owner said this was the first snow that Izmir had had in ten years.

I found some encouragement from It reported it would be sunny the next day and up to 45 degrees. Just give me a clear sky and I could cope with the cold. I had several layers in reserve that I had yet to put to use. I just needed to dry out my shoes and tights and I'd be set to go. Maybe I wouldn't have to take a bus the rest of the way to Istanbul after all or escape Turkey altogether.  One option was to take a ferry over to Athens from Izmir.

As luck would have it, the next day was a Sunday, so I had little traffic to contend with on the six-lane highway skirting the bay out of town. I was equally happy that the road bypassed the surrounding snow-drenched mountains and has been flat all the way to Aliağa, allowing me to settle into a steady comfortable pace, freed from having to power up any climbs generating a sweat and having to unlayer and then layer back up for the descents. It's been fabulous to be merrily biking along once again, though for the first time in a couple of weeks the scenery no longer includes orange groves. They were still harvesting oranges in Ephesus, fifty miles south of Izmir. I'm back amongst the olive groves, my most likely camp site tonight. They've been fully harvested, but are now being pruned with chain saws and clippers.

There was less than a two hundred mile long banana belt at the southern most point of Turkey with banana vendors dotting the road side. There have still been orange sellers today in the cold.  Turkey is so agriculturally rich, just one of seven countries that are net food exporters, that some city streets and parks are lined with orange trees. There were oranges for the taking on the sidewalks. I picked up my fırst batch shortly before I arrived in Adana and met Zekeriya. When I shared them with him, he warned me that there is an inedible wild strain of oranges. And so these were. They looked normal, but their insides were mostly pulp and yellowish rather than orange and very sour and bitter.

That was just one of two food faux pas I've committed so far. The first was buying a container that said yogurt, but was a cheese spread. Both David and I made the same mistake in a small shop early in our travels. What David thought was yogurt was actually butter, which was even less use to him than the cheese spread was to me.

He offered me some of the butter to spread on my bread as we sat along the road picnicking. I was happy to give it a try.  Then I saw him take a huge spoonful.  He had noting to spread it out.  I somewhat gagged as I anticipated him thrusting it down his throat.  But instead he flung it on to the dirt, shocking me more than if he had gobbled it down.  He said he couldn't possibly use the entire container and didn't care to carry more weight than he needed. That was when I fully realized,that if a spoonful of butter could make a difference to him, he truly was obsessed with limiting his load to the bare minimum, not even bringing a towel, using his shirt or pull over to dry off after washing.

I quickly said that I would have taken it.  He gladly gave me the rest of his butter. I would occasionally get the last few swigs of a liter container of juice that he didn't wish to carry. Every morning he was eager to find a garbage can to rid himself of his several ounces of litter from the night before.

He carried three water bottles, just as I did, but never had water in more than one of them until the last moment of the day before camping, sometimes not finding any and having to rely on mine, as I tried to keep my three bottles near capacity at all times. On long ascents he would pour water out of his bottle to lighten his load. He would have fit right into the peloton, where the racers toss aside bottles as soon as they are empty and throw them away empty or not before the day's sprint to the finish.

One of my great food discoveries was a bit of a gamble--a hard-plastic pie plate full of a hard-packed, shredded food that looked like it might be a snack. It was moderately priced, so I took a gamble on it. An older man in the store pointed at it and gave me a pat on the back, congratulating me on my choice. A guy working in the store pointed out a bottle of syrup, implying that it went with it, but it was a bit pricey.  I was willing to try whatever it was on its own.

When I gave it a taste, it was very dry and tasteless, but had a vaguely familiar taste. After a few moments I realized it was a flattened version of shredded wheat.  Broken up, it went perfectly with yogurt. I later learned that it is a dessert that one pours warm milk on and then honey or syrup. I may be the only person in all of Turkey eating it with yogurt. It has become a regular part of my diet, something I have nearly every day, except on those rare occasions when I find cornflakes.

Later, George

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