Crossing borders to Turkey didn’t only mean entering a new country; It meant entering the country that would take me to a whole new continent. It meant entering the metropolis where two worlds collide; Where West meets East.
Needless to say, my excitement was just about to overload. And I fell, I fell so hard…
But first I had to cross borders to another country; Bulgaria. Although I wasn’t actually planning to cross borders since I was going to take the 15 minutes ferry ride across the Danube river separating it from Romania. The area on the map looking a lot greener on the Bulgarian side of the Danube, I really wanted to catch the last ferry of the day, departing at 8.30 pm. But I was struggling against time, and rather than my normal “oh oh baby snake, oh oh deer deer!!”-thoughts I had to go all racer snob and tell myself: “Cadence cadence! Push push push!” and ignore the beautiful sunset putting the fields in a reddish shimmer behind me.
AAAHH COME BACK SPIDER!! DON’T RUN FROM ME, I LOVE YOU PLEASE LOVE ME BACK!! “For fucks sake, stop harassing me girl!! I got a spgider girlfriend already, K? I am not interested!” And that’s how it goes every time I try to catch a spider with my hands for a few photos…
As I kept telling myself to go faster, I got distracted by a white van slowing down next to me. When I saw the faces through the window I knew who they were: The men who had given me sweets at the gas station earlier, being all curious and impressed by the trip I was making. They were holding up sweets again and I tried yelling to them through the glass;
“No thank you! Ferry, gotta get to the ferry!”
They obviously didn’t hear, and stopped the vehicle right in front of me so that I had to hop off my bike. In the next moment they were pouring sweets all over me as they asked: “Water, do you need water?!” and pointed at two big bottles in the front seat.
“No no! I got water, thank you. I need to… catch the last ferry… to Bulgaria!” I gasped between my breaths as I shoved the candy down my handlebar bag. The two bottles in the frame’s bottle holders were full since I hadn’t given myself time to make even the shortest water break the past hours. “Please, let me go now… ferry, ferry!” I kept repeating, still trying to catch my breath. They waved me off with more enjoy-your-trip-wishes and then the ride was on again.
As I reached the streets of Zimnicea my heart broke into a million pieces. Two pups on the road, nearly newborns. One of them was lying lifeless in a pool of blood, and the other one was trying to wake it up with little whimpers. And then another car. Run pup, run! Luckily, the pup ran – leaving her sibling behind to be crushed by a monstrous vehicle once more. The sight of road kills brings tears to my eyes every time, and the number has been devastatingly high ever since I got to Romania – not being any lower in Turkey.
I made it to the dock right on time, on the minute to be exact. But there was no ferry to be seen. It turned out I had missed the turning a few km earlier, and I was told to leave by a uniformed guard since I had apparently entered a forbidden area. There was no way I was going to get in time for the ferry now, so I disappointedly gave up. Which meant I had to find camp in the dark right in the middle of the city. And there is one major problem with seeking yourself to the bushed areas of a city in a country like Romania.
I knew I had done it even before I heard them. In an attempt to get away from the crowded areas into the bush, I had entered stray dog territory. Their barks penetrated the woods and a few seconds later they came running at me. I made myself ready, shielding myself with the bike as I told them to fuck off, jokingly thinking to myself that “soon it’s going to be men and not dogs that I tell to fuck off”. Little did I know how right I was. The dogs did as they were told and fucked off, retreating into the woods again (if men were so easy). In case they’d come back however, I picked up two sticks from the ground – arming myself with one in each hand. I stated to myself that I had two options; I could stay in the stray dog territory or I could stay closer to the road. Usually I’d pick the woods, but for this time I picked the road. Not wanting to attract any attention from passing drivers though, I let my head torch stay in the pannier and pitched the tent in the dark.
I woke up to the sound of a rooster the next morning, intensely cock-a-doodle-dooing for two hours straight (seriously that’s what the English say?). As I finally decided to exit my tent and brush my teeth, I found that my camp was right next to a farm, with the rooster just around the corner! The farmer came by and greeted me.
“Bulgaria?” He asked without seeming mad about me camping on his lands.
“Da da, Bulgaria, ferry boat”, I replied, and then continued; “I’m so sorry, I didn’t realize I was camping on your land!” The farmer didn’t seem to understand a word of my apologize but simply pointed at the bucket he was holding. It was filled with snails and I could tell from his body gestures and pleased smile that unlike Swedes that would pick snails simply to get them out of their garden he was going to eat them. A lot of people in the Romanian countryside seemed to do so.
The Danube river separating Romania and Bulgaria from each other, once on the Bulgarian side I replaced my brake pads for the first time. Already in Czech Republic the mechanic had told me to replace them since “it will be dangerous to keep biking with them”
It turned out the ferry wasn’t very punctual after all and it took off one hour later than scheduled that morning. In the meantime I was trying to make conversation with three truck drivers who were boarding the ferry too, of whom two were going to Tehran and one to Ashgabat. The one going to Turkmenistan was the only one who knew a few words of English (the others kept babbling on in Turkish with me).
“Iran bad” he said, “but Turkmenistan, fine. Liberal.” Sure it might be but they won’t give me more than a five days’ visa, I wanted to tell him but that was too much for his English.
My days in Bulgaria were pretty plain and eventless, and the nature too. The road was frustratingly boring going into straight slopes up and down that made me feel like I wasn’t making any distance at all. It sure isn’t a justified image of Bulgaria though, since I by own choice took the straightforward, fast path rather than the beautiful one going across the mountains. The simple explanation is that I was eager to leave Europe, to finally get to explore more exotic places. I was told by a woman once that it was not safe to wild camp and I heard gun shots from my tent the same night, but I assumed it was hunters and fell asleep thinking that “hopefully they won’t mistake me for a deer”.
I didn’t even spend three full days in Bulgaria, before crossing borders to my greatest waypoint so far; The country that would be my portal to Asia.
I had not ever in my life been outside of Europe before, so you could imagine I was excited. The border crossing itself wasn’t too complicated. Sure it meant various passport controls and also a quick scan of my panniers but I had honestly expected it to take more time, to be more painful. One of the border guards asked why on earth I was making this trip alone, and the one reply I could think of was: Why not? I have repeated it so many times by now. Tell me, why not?
And then I was in. I was as far away from home as I had ever been before and I loved it.
Finally got my first stamp when crossing borders to Turkey!
“I love Turkey!” I told Nina not for the first time as we sat down on the wooden chairs in the timbered bar looking like it could have been imported right from the Swedish Fjällen, with people’s “I was here”-scribbles carved into the furniture and walls. Nina was a French girl and despite only being one year older than me I felt like a child next to her. She had spent one year in Turkey (Izmir) doing her Erasmus already, so nothing was really new to her anymore. As for me however, it was like rebirthing again… Like getting to explore the world for the first time all over and just about anything would fascinate me.
“Nina are you sure we don’t need to pay for these snacks they serve us!? Really, they always serve free snacks in bars?? And they… THEY REFILL THE BOWLS AS SOON AS WE EMPTY THEM!? Wow, I’m totally gonna bring this tradition home to Swedish bars!!” Even the mechanism for opening the beer bottle was new to me, and would almost make me fall over my chair. The busy streets crowded with bazaars and street food I had never seen before fascinated me too and the five times a day call to prayers from the minarets of the mosques were spellbinding. I had only heard them once before; At night-time when drinking beer with a Serb in the city of Mostar, Bosnia Herzegovina.
Nina had traveled quite a lot and would mainly get around by hitch-hiking and using couch-surfing. Most interestingly for me she had together with a female friend traveled across Iran.
“We always felt safe in Iran”, she told me, “Our biggest problem was people being too nice to us, they would never let us be. And since my friend isn’t that social… I had to do all the talking!” she continued with a laugh. “It was mind-blowing really. People would invite us to their homes and then call their relatives who spoke English, and then the relatives would cross the whole country simply to come talk to us… how weird is that?!”
I asked Nina what her parents thought of her travels and hitch-hiking. “They have learnt to accept it I guess” – just like mine, I thought – “At first they’d never ever let me go to Iran. But then when I stayed in Turkey, they got used to the thought. And when I told my mom I’m probably doing my internship in Ankara next year…” She laughed again, “She just replied: ‘Oh you’re going to move to Ankara with all the suicide bombings? Very well then. Have fun!'”
I also asked her what her dream destination would be. After all, her reply wasn’t very surprising to me – I could tell she had fallen in love with the Middle East: “Syria and Iraq. But this is not the time I guess.” I hope there will be a time for Nina to go to Syria and Iraq – that she will get to witness the great historical treasures dwelling there and that she will tell us all about it.
We diverged paths the next morning as she was catching the bus to Istanbul and I was riding my bike to Gelibolu. Before I left however, I had to say goodbye to a restaurant owner in whose restaurant I ate the night before I met Nina. He hadn’t let me pay for the food I’d had; the rice, the bean soup, the dessert and the beers were all on him after he heard about my trip. We had chatted all evening and he truly gave me the warmest welcome I could have ever received on my first night in Turkey.
The typical shot-looking glass that the Cay is served in…. and finally I found out who were occupying those giant nests I saw everywhere!
When leaving Edirne I was convinced that the rest of my stay would be just as amazing as these first few days. And sure thing, I was invited in for Cay (Turkish tea) by a lovely couple already in the first village I passed through… I almost didn’t think they’d let me leave! They didn’t speak a single word of English but they would both look up words in their old dictionaries as the glasses with cay were refilled and then refilled again. When they found out I was only 20 years old, they pointed at me exclaiming: “Baby! You are baby!” … and then they put a spoon of Turkish, homemade yoghurt in my mouth, just like that. I protested wildly; “What the… I aint no baby… ok?!” Another spoon in my mouth. Oddly enough, throughout my first weeks in Turkey people would either call me a baby or ask to sleep with me. Does that make any sense to you?!
The couple gave me a flower and I strapped it onto my bike with the flag… sadly I lost both later on 😦 (And as you could see my handlebar tape was in a terrible condition back then)
As I were to set camp that evening I realized Turkey didn’t really offer that many good accommodation opportunities for a cyclist but I got lucky and found a meadow hidden from the road by wild growing bushes and with a beautiful “balcony view” of the fields and hills below; The dark was dotted with little lagoons of lights from the villages and the calls from the mosques were echoing throughout the valley as I went to sleep, once again thinking that I loved Turkey.
Little did I know what my next days would be like.
Just as I thought I had finally gotten myself out of trouble, I was pulled over by a car. And out of the car stepped three men, all armed with machine guns. They remained silent as they approached me, and I asked myself: What the hell is going on? Are they on my side or not? Please be nice guys, please please please…
And that was the end of part I.