22km Istanbul to Balıkesir
“Problem,” said the man in charge of getting buses in and out of the terminal on a busy holiday Sunday. All around us, families were filling the bus station, jumping on and off coaches to all parts of Turkey. “Problem,” he said again, looking at our bicycles, shaking his head and then finally throwing his hands up in the air. He looked to a colleague for sympathy – a “what am I supposed to do with this” expression written all over his face.
We’d been told to be prepared for some fuss. Well, who could expect much less when you arrive at a bus terminal in a Turkish town and hope to fit two huge touring bikes, complete with multiple bags, into a bus that is already packed with people going home for Eid, the festival at the end of Ramadan.
You may wonder just why we were at a bus station anyway. This is supposed to be a world tour by bicycle. Slowly, however, we are realising that buses will have to be a part of our trip over the coming weeks. Winter is closing in and crossing Turkey now sits large in our minds, a country far wider and mountainous than we had taken notice of before we really took the time to examine our maps in Istanbul. Of course we will cycle where time and weather permits but on rainy days we are likely to take the bus to try and speed up our journey towards the south and the Syrian border.
Earlier that morning we set off with good intentions to cycle. We departed in the wet early morning darkness, down cobbled streets with the day’s first call to prayer echoing through the streets. We waved goodbye to the Blue Mosque, a feature on our skyline for the past week, and rushed to the ferry port of Yenikapi for the first boat out. The rain had been falling all night and the day before too. We splashed through several large puddles and our feet were wet before we even took our seats.
The crossing was surprisingly calm for the amount of wind and rain pelting the windows and we held out hope that the skies would clear but emerging from the ferry in Bandirma was a reality check. On the other side of the Marmara Sea, just as in Istanbul, the water poured from the sky and now it was accompanied by an icy wind. We managed 10km out of the city when we decided this was madness defined. We were cold, uncomfortable and just plain unhappy. We briefly mulled trying to go just a little further but sitting in a soaked tent on waterlogged ground held little appeal so we did a u-turn for the bus station. Better to travel by bus on a horrible weather day than be staring wistfully at the roads on a sunny one to come.
We hadn’t bargained on one of the busiest travel weekends of the year though and as we rhymed off a list of possible destinations we only heard “full” in response until finally we hit on a city some 80km south and so it was that we ended up at the bus station with a ticket to Balıkesir and in front of one unhappy worker, charged with getting our bikes onto an already very crowded vehicle.
The Turks are nothing if not ingenious though and rather than rearrange a whole busload of luggage our man realised the next bus would be less crowded. He ran off, found someone willing to switch tickets and made four passengers happy at once. One couple got to their destination earlier than expected and we got our massive load on a bus shortly afterwards.
We had no idea what to expect from Balıkesir – a large city with some 220,000 people but far away enough from the coast that it gets few if any tourists. There are no real monuments to see but after we tracked down a budget hotel we discovered a hive of activity in the surrounding streets. Shops, restaurants and cafes were all packed on a chilly Sunday afternoon and as the only obvious outsiders we attracted some attention. “Tourist?” inquired one man as we unloaded our bicycles while his son pointed at the strange people who seemed to have landed from outer space. A small crowd gathered and then soon dispersed again. This hasn’t happened to us for some time but we expect more onlookers as we head further east. It’s funny how such a small distance from the typical tourist trail will take you from being completely ignored to the centre of attention.