January 28

Soggy start to the day today.  After the rains of the past few days, the ground pretty much everywhere feels like a wet sponge, so we were squelching around the campground this morning.  For some reason the groundsheet inside the tent kept getting wet, but I couldn’t figure out why.  A depressing breakfast, standing in the chilly greyness by the side of the main road, of nutella on damp bread and a particularly cold orange. 

After an hours cycling however, we were warmed up, and since we were only ten kilometres from the Turkish border, decided to stop for a last taste of Greece which consisted of Wifi and a chocolate bar.  Once we got to the border, we were able to move through pretty quickly, with me having to fold my laptop through the guards tiny window so he could see my visa. Seconds after I get my stamp and I’m on my way into Turkey, he calls me back and asks to take a look at the E-Visa again, which puzzles me.  He points out that we’d got our visas to start from the 31st of January – the day we intended to be entering Istanbul.  Obviously, Turkey starts before Istanbul (to the tune of about 300km) so I’ve no idea why I decided that was the right date, but this meant we needed to go get a new visa.  A visit to a nearby ATM and 80 Turkish Lira later, we were on our way into Turkey proper.

The first few miles in Turkey were pretty flat, which was reassuring, but then we got into a series of small, rolling hills which I imagine continue until we get to Tekirdag.  We were making good time through them until we hit Kesan, where the hill leaving town was an absolute monster.  That big bugger, coupled with a pretty persistent headwind, meant that we slowed down quite a lot, but still managed to make over 100k today, leaving Istanbul less than 200 away.  Some of the gradients on the Turkish hills were pretty steep as well, meaning climbing left you knackered, but it was the descents that made it all a bit hairy. 

As you ride down these steep hills, there are some pretty big lorries cannoning past you two feet to your left.  You’re riding into a strong headwind, which is forcing you to constantly correct your balance at 30km/h.  As the truck passes you, it’s going so fast a wind pushes you from behind for a couple of metres and then suddenly the headwind strikes you again.  The constant balance checking means that by the end of the descent, you’re almost as exhausted as from climbing, but it is a damn sight quicker at least.

Turkey so far has been enjoyable – beautiful rolling hills and a decent sized shoulder for the most part.  The road quality is quite consistently good, but the shoulder can be very changeable – in some places excellent quality then in others it can be down to a bumpy dirt track, which can make for challenging cycling.  Already the dogs here seem more threatening than in Greece, with two dogs coming far closer and acting far more aggressively than we’ve had so far.  Another strong point in Turkey’s favour is the Cey (tea) which is served black, in small glasses, and costs about 35p with as many refills as you fancy.  Great to warm up and get some sugar in.  We’re camped up tonight five metres away from a petrol station at the top of a hill, which is about 20m away from the main road – noisy and bright, but at least it’s not too soggy and should have an easy start tomorrow.   Should make it to near Sivirla tomorrow and from there we’ll hug the coast to enter Istanbul, keeping us from the horrors of the renowned – at least among cycle tourists – D100, an 8-lane behemoth that spews you out in the centre of Istanbul. 

January 27

Very wet night.  Rain was hammering the tent from as soon as we got into the tent but then stopped at 7am on the dot.  We broke down camp, happy that we weren’t being soaked, and then as soon as we set off it started to rain again.  What fortune.  It rained non-stop until we got into Komotini, where we tried to dry off just outside a cafe.  As soon as they saw us, like two wet dogs, the lady offered us some free tea which we accepted gladly, and sat outside the cafe sipping on our honey sweetened tea.  After half an hour it became clear that not only were we not drying off, but we were getting cold, so we decided to make a move and get on towards Sapes.

Thankfully the rain had stopped by this point, so we had an uneventful ride along a very boring, featureless plain.  There was a small climb into Sapes, which we moved through quickly, and soon we were heading towards Alexandroupoli.  Before we hit the hills outside the town, we met our first tourer on the trip, a Japanese dude called Eugi (no idea how to spell it) who had come all the way from Japan, and was on his way to Portugal.  We talked for fifteen minutes or so, then after taking pictures of each other we got on our way, climbing the hills towards Alexpoli. 

I was happy to find out that the area we were cycling through was one of the places where the three Via Egnatia (1 – the ancient Roman road linking Dyrrachion and Constantinople; 2 – the modern motorway that travels from Igoumenitsa to Turkey; 3 – the old motorway whose route the modern motorway mirrors) converge.  There were lots of signs pointing to Via Egnatia and as we climbed the hills towards Alexpoli, I found, after climbing through a lot of mud and grass, an uncovered section of the ancient Via Egnatia.  If the Silk Road was a story, it would be the story of East meets West, and the Via Egnatia would be one of the first chapters.  The Via Egnatia was the first Roman road to be built outside Italy, linking Rome with Constantinople, and would have been one of the busiest roads of Roman times.  It travelled through hills, mountains and forests and linked two of the greatest cities of ancient times, so I was mighty glad to be able to stand on it for a little while, as I ready myself for the rest of the journey east. 

The hills proved no match for us, and so we arrived into Alexandroupoli about 430 after having done 105km and immediately stopped at a greek bakery for some goodness – it could very well be our last one!  I chose a particularly incredible cream, raspberry jam and pastry thing which was amazing, not spoiled at all by the remarkably sour-faced lassie working there.  As we had time to kill before we needed to make camp, we decided to have a proper meal sit-down meal, so Ryan managed to sniff out an incredible Armenian restaurant where the waitress told us exactly what to order – lavas with grilled vegetables and meats.  It was great.  After dinner, the rain had started again and the roads were a bit manic, so it was a wet and slightly stressful ride to our campsite for the night, but we’re only 30km away from the Turkish border so we should be over by lunch.  Looking at the distance, Istanbul is less than 300km away, and considering we’re averaging 110km, we could be there by Friday afternoon!

January 26

Waking up in Greece is one of my favourite things. In almost all of the places we sleep, there’s some kind of wild flowers or herbs, and so as you start to get moving, you’re surrounded by these wonderful sweet smells.  Today was no different, with wild thyme surrounding our camp overlooking the Aegean, making getting up and going so much easier.  We were early this morning, breaking camp at 730, but we were running low on food so had very little breakfast.  Come 11 this was affecting us, and we stopped at a bakery (Greek bakeries are my other favourite things about this country) to get some sweet treats.  As usual in these tiny, out of the way places, they had excellent free wifi, so we gorged ourselves for half an hour on pastries and internet access.  Feeling energised, we smashed out the few remaining hills into Kavala, and arriving there about 12, we sat out a passing rain cloud in a cheap burger joint and were soon continuing on towards Xanthi. 

Now, whether it was the hills leading into Xanthi, or the incredibly persistent headwind after leaving Xanthi, the afternoon was a total slog.  Nothing too taxing physically, considering we were climbing mountains the other week, but just left me absolutely drained by the time we got into Xanthi about 5.  The area from Kavala to Xanthi was nothing special, just dull, flat farmland so I spent a good few hours daydreaming of running a European-wide scavenger hunt next year.  In my head, Red Bull and Vodafone have already signed up as corporate sponsors.  I’m making it happen.  We left Xanthi after having the largest gyro I’ve seen in Greece so far and made camp just outside a little town called Kimmeria.  We were incredibly fortunate with the weather, as it held off just long enough for us to set up our tent and get all our stuff neatly put away, before opening up the rain on us. Hopefully come the end of the day tomorrow we’ll be near Alexandroupoli, the last biggish town before Turkey and we’ll get everything ready for our fourth country in as many weeks.

January 25

Took us a little while to get ourselves out of the hostel this morning, we’re not nearly as good at leaving warm buildings with showers as we are getting ourselves on the road from the tent.  Had a big breakfast and then said our goodbyes to everyone.  We headed northeast out of Thessaloniki, trying to avoid the multiple motorways which seem to surround the city, but the route took us ages as it was just lots of hills.  We finally emerged out the other side of the climb, coming upon a slope that opened out onto an enormous valley, with a lake in the middle.  The clouds were low-lying, between us and the other side of the valley, so you could only see glimpses of the hills every so often.  We stopped to take some pictures, and I looked at the time and distance we’d covered and was a little surprised – in the two hours since we’d left, we’d barely done 12km, which is not a great speed to cover the 600 or so kilometres to Istanbul! 

However, once we descended into the valley and got onto the flat stuff we could really open up.  For about three hours we were able to set a very fast pace, until we ran into a strong headwind and stopped for some bread and turkey beside some trucks.  The truck drivers were doing much the same as us – munching away – and every so often they would get up to dance to some of their music, which was great fun to watch.  An old Greek shepherd came past with a herd of goats, and he had the most useless sheepdog I’ve ever seen.  While the goats were scattering in all directions, his only dog was standing beside us staring at our food.  Either he thought we were oddly shaped goats, or he fancied his chances at begging.  Finally, the shepherd had had enough and shouted at the dog, prompting him to nonchalantly wander over to the goats and lie down.  That dog has an excellent life. 

After lunch, the wind had died down, so we were able to get up a good speed again and we were soon running alongside the Aegean.  It was great being so close to the sea again, smelling the salt and hearing the waves crash against the shore.  We stopped for a photo break and skimmed some stones, enjoying the afternoon sunshine, then headed on our way again.  Stopping in a little town to pick up some water, a 9 month old dog approached us outside a closed petrol station and started playing with me.  As the station was closed, we cycled back into town to get a few bottles of water, and on our way back out the young dog chased me to play again.  Unfortunately, he clearly wasn’t accustomed to cars on the road, and after he’d said hello to me, he wandered into the road and got hit by a car.  The car hit the brakes at the last minute, so didn’t kill him, and he was able to run away yelping, but I think he must’ve broken a couple ribs.  Wee shame.

We rolled along the road to Kavala for another couple of hours, watching the sun slowly set and found a spot just before the Cape Appolonia.  We should hopefully have a beautiful sunrise tomorrow morning, and the distances are just perfect for us.  50k to Kavala, and 110 to Xanthi – Kavala for lunch and Xanthi for dinner.  Greek elections were today, with implications for all of Europe – will be interesting to see what happens.

January 24

Was awoken by Ryan and the other boys heading back from an Afro-Reggae-Beats night at 4/5am and laughed to myself, thanking my good choice of not heading out and getting trashed.  Waking up at 8, Ry Ry pulled himself out of bed and had the drunk eyes on like crazy.  We both fell back asleep, and come noon were hungry so went out to take some photos of Saloniki and get some gyros. 

Down at the sea, some Ghanaian dude came up to me, singing Bob Marley and gave me a band – as a gift he said.  He then proceeded to ask me for some euros, in no relation to the gift he had just given me of course.  Told him I was cycling to China, and wasn’t really in the habit of having spare money at the moment.  He tried to hit up Ryan and Pete – an american dude we’d met at the hostel – for some money, to no avail.  Suddenly, it turns out the band wasn’t a gift anymore!  As he peeled it off my hand, I made sure to sing him back the Bob Marley he’d sang to me, in the sweetest voice I could muster – ‘don’t worry about a thing, cos every little thing is gonna be alright’ – it was satisfying. 

A nap in the hostel, then chatted to a lady named Susie who’d been travelling for the past 8 years.  We bonded over Central Asian bureaucracy problems and then the four of us went out to get some cheap pasta.  Back to the hostel and intend to pass out pretty soon as we wanna be close to Kavala by end of day tomorrow – going to be a long day.

January 23

Plan A was to explore Thessaloniki.  Plan A did not happen.  As I woke up, I realised I had a lot to get done before I could go and play in the history place.  I got down to breakfast as it opened (buffet for €2 – result) and spent the next three hours eating and cruising the internet.  My Iran/Turkmenistan problem has got more complicated – if I want to take the train through Iran, I need a transit visa.  I also need a transit visa for Turkmenistan.  However, to get either one, I first need the visa from the other country.  Bit of a catch-22.  Will see how this plays out. 

Spent a lot of time on workaday trying to find something to do in February and found a couple of nice horse ranches with lots of dogs in mainland Turkey and some of the Greek islands.  Six messages later, hopefully one of them will get back to me with a place I can go learn some Turkish and play with some big animals. 

Mainly an admin day today, but went and saw some of Saloniki, which is a very young town.  Lots of uni students and young people on the streets, and plenty people looking fashionable drinking coffee in bars and shops.  It’s really a great city, with Byzantine, Hellenic, Roman and Ottoman influences all over the place, and ruined buildings dotting the downtown area.  I think I’d like to spend a couple of weeks here. 

January 22

The fog was in thick and heavy as we set off in the morning.  The lights from cars would periodically emerge from the grey, and either they’d see us, or we’d see them and one or both parties would swerve to avoid a collision.  Thankfully, none occured.  Our ride along the sea was a little spoiled by not being able to see it at all, only hearing the rollers crashing into the beach.

My biggest issue was deciding which route to take into Thessaloniki.  The fast route, via the motorway, took us straight there and was only a gentle 70k.  The other route, avoiding the motorway, took us 50k out our way to get to the city.  Not really a good option either.  I managed to find a tiny road that ran alongside the motorway for most of it, so decided that looked like a good option to check out.  We boosted to Eginio, then head for the dusty track beside the roaring motorway.  It was a beautiful road, going through a national park which was full of wetlands – including water buffalo and flamingos.  Well, colour me excited if this isn’t the best damn road I’ve ever spotted!

This positivity didn’t last.  The cycling was good, with no cars at all, but then we hit a river.  Obviously, this tiny track didn’t have a 50m bridge designed for it, so it’s into problem solving time.  The motorway has a big fence on either side, so it’s very difficult to just clamber up and cycle along, not to mention pretty dangerous.  The routes going forward don’t look very good – the maps give no indication of a bridge anywhere else than the motorway.  I find another route that could take us only 20k or so out of our way, but spot a place we can pull onto the motorway from our tiny track.  So we cycle back a kilometre or two.  That’s when I see the toll gates I’d forgotten about. Shit. Considering our experience with the police near Metsovo, knowing full well that cycling on the largest motorway in Greece is pretty illegal, I’m expecting the worst.  The alternative route is almost a definite, but I think it’s worth a shot.  We’ll do the classic lost British tourist act and hope for the best.

Well it was totally unnecessary.  As we rolled towards the toll, a man waved us over, and before I could start my finely crafted speech, he asked where we were headed to.  I responded tentatively, giving him the spiel about China and Marco Polo.  He’s impressed, and doesn’t seem to know or care that bikes are definitely not allowed on this piece of road, and tells us to climb under one of the toll gates.  What a success!  This man, this modern day hero, delivered us from an hour’s detour through twisty winding tracks with a wave of his hand.  What a man.  We were only on the motorway for fifteen kilometres or so, but it was a lovely ride, with a massive shoulder and almost no traffic.  Heading onto a route into Saloniki I’d noticed, we stopped for lunch as we were making good time and, lying in the weak sunshine, had a good chat about our plans for the future, and career aspirations.  Within ten minutes of us leaving our lunch spot by the river, we came upon a number of cars going very slowly, and the reason soon became apparent – a river had burst it’s banks and was flooding the road with some vigour.  We stared at it for a minute, hoping it would go away, and after it did not go away, we charged.  I got my feet bloody soaked, as I jumped off my bike and ran through the water.  Shoes needed a good clean anyway.

Almost immediately after crossing the river, the traffic just got mental.  The roads started to deteriorate, and the dogs got closer and closer.  We had lots of trucks thundering past, dogs jumping out at us from the side of the road and plenty of potholes to dodge.  It was pretty stressful, especially the enormous four way junction, with cars and lorries beeping all over the place, and having to wave at lorry drivers just so they know I’m actually in front of them.  Once we got out the other side of the junction things quietened down for a little bit, but then we hit the centre of town and it got flipping mental again.  Far worse than London in terms of manic drivers – people pulling out, massive buses all over the place and cars flying all over the road.  We found some internet and managed to find the hostel – obviously it was at the top of the biggest hill in town – and it was great.  The owner, a lady called Vicki, was absolutely lovely, so smiley and happy.  We got settled in, then had a few beers and we went out for dinner with a Canadian guy, Matt, to this great Greek place.  Another beer as a nightcap and crashed in bed.  Tomorrow get to explore Thessaloniki, the second city of the Byzantine Empire, which I’m pretty stoked about!