Alex and I crossed into Turkey from Greece just before sunset, and started our five-day journey together. I had been looking forward to cycling Turkey for a long time, so was pleased to have finally arrived. We took the coastal road as far as possible, mainly to avoid the busy main road between Greece and İstanbul. It was perhaps also the more scenic route, but did little to ease the headwind that we faced. The wind was relentless and always seemed to blow directly from the front no matter which way we were going.
|Coastal view on the way to İstanbul.|
Though this was only the second time I had ever cycled with another cyclist for any appreciable distance, it was a good partnership. We had similarly sized and synchronised appetites, so when one needed to stop for sustenance, the other was always ready to do the same. We ambled on towards İstanbul, frequently greeted by the locals and invited to drink tea. Watermelons sold by the roadside always went down well in the heat of the day, as well as the self-made Greek salads relished with local breads. I even had my first beer in five years! Not much birding was done along the way!
|Cycling along the road works to avoid the traffic.|
|Alex beside a modified motorcycle of sorts.|
|My first beer in five years! It tasted great!|
|Alex looking out to sea from our campsite; my first night without a tent.|
Long before we reached the metropolis of İstanbul, we were drawn into the bustling traffic streaming eastwards. We had heard from other sources that it is a challenge to approach the city by bike, and we can confirm that this is indeed the case! It was therefore with much relief as we arrived in the Old City area of İstanbul, where we had the first real chance to get out of the mainstream traffic. We had a couple glasses each of freshly squeezed orange juice to celebrate our arrival.
|Heading for İstanbul, with miles still to go.|
|Waiting patiently for fresh orange juice upon arrival in İstanbul.|
|I am Turkish! Great country with great people!|
We spent a morning exploring the Taksim area, and also took time off in a Taksim Park, visited some bike shops, and raced through the traffic on our unloaded bikes. Alex was always ahead, having more guts to face the traffic than I. I got the hang of it though! Alex managed to sell his bike at one of the shops, as he was planning to continue on to India with only a backpack and his guitar. After a final beer we parted ways, with Alex heading off to meet his host in the city. I needed to organised my gear for the next stretch through Western Anatolia, so spent a few extra days at a hostel. Looking back, the time spent with Alex on the road was the most insightful period of my journey so far, for which I am most grateful.
|İstiklal Caddesi (Independence Avenue) leading up to Taksim Square.|
|Steamed and grilled corn was for sale everywhere in İstanbul.|
A friend in South Africa had recommended some sites worth visiting during my stay, so I spent a fair amount of time exploring some of İstanbul’s finest attractions, such as the Sultan Ahmed Mosque (also known as the Blue Mosque), the Hagia Sophia, and the Basilica Cistern amongst others. Amongst all these activities, I shamefully did not get around to using my binoculars during my entire stay. However, I did not fail to notice the Laughing Doves perched in the trees beside the hostel’s roof-top restaurant while having breakfast, or the Yelkouan Shearwaters passing the ferry while crossing the Bosphorus strait that separates Europe and Asia.
|The busy Bosphorus strait, with passenger ferries going to and fro.|
|Inside the Basilica Cistern.|
|The splendid interior of the Blue Mosque.|
|The Hagia Sophia at night.|
|Inside the Hagia Sophia.|
Unknown to me upon arrival, my stay in İstanbul coincided with the FIFA U-20 World Cup final between Uruguay and France. It also so happened that a group of spirited Uruguayan supporters was staying at the same hostel. When they heard I was from South Africa, I was promptly invited to join them and was generously handed a ticket (I previously lived in Kimberley, the city that hosted the Uruguayan team during the 2010 FIFA World Cup). Though Uruguay did not win the match after a nail-biting penalty shoot-out, the experience was certainly the highlight of my stay in İstanbul.
|The Uruguayan supporters moments before entering the stadium.|
|Dedicated Uruguayan supporters!|
|Some football action at the FIFA U-20 World Cup final.|
To avoid the nerve-racking traffic on my departure from İstanbul, I took the ferry from the Old City across the Marmara Sea to Bursa. The cycle from the hostel to the ferry port was short, while the ferry ride was relaxing. The bonus was that by taking the ferry, I had another chance to watch Yelkouan Shearwaters, this time with binoculars. Being a fairly large city, Bursa presented a minor challenge to negotiate while heading for my first birding destination in Turkey – Mount Uludağ. It is the highest mountain in Western Anatolia at 2500 m, and it is claimed that its summit is visible from Istanbul nearly 150 km away on clear days. After several hours of cycling the gradual climb towards the top, I was stopped by an elderly lady filling water canisters at a roadside spring (these are common in Turkey). She insisted I go no further by my own, as the forests were crawling with animals that would make a short meal of me. At least, this is what I understood. After several attempts to explain that the odd dog (or wolf) would not be a threat, I succumbed to her insistence, and waited for a friend of hers to arrive with a vehicle. And so it was that I got a lift for the last 10 km to the ski resort near the mountain top. In the end I was quite grateful for the ride, as the fog became increasing dense as we ascended while the temperature dropped considerably. After being dropped off at the forlorn resort in the fog and cold, I bid the driver a good journey back home, I took to the nearest patch of forest to pitch my tent.
|The ski resort near the peak of Mount Uludağ, at an altitude of 2500 m.|
I spent the weekend camping above the Uludağ ski resort, which is transformed into hub of activity in winter, and enjoyed the absolute solitude that reigns during summer. The coniferous forest surrounding my tent held a number of new birds for me. The most exciting to see was Krüper’s Nuthatch, which I had only got a brief glimpse of on the way up. Being more agile than its larger relatives, I regrettably did not get a photograph of this beautiful bird, with its grey plumage and rufous chest patch. Other woodland species that were new to me included Firecrest and Common Rosefinch, amongst a number of familiar species such as Goldcrest, Chiffchaff, Coal Tit, Robin and even Black Woodpecker. Pallid Swifts circled about the few resort hotels. The nearby alpine scrub delivered another two lifers, including Water Pipit and the splendid Red-fronted Serin. The latter were in the company of a mixed flock of Eurasian Greenfinch, Linnet and Eurasian Serin.
|Ski lifts at Mount Uludağ, waiting for the winter.|
On my second day, I took a four-hour hike up to the top of the mountain peak in search of a species I had last searched for in Slovenia, namely Alpine Accentor. The trek to the top delivered a couple of Ring Ouzels, and my first Shorelark of the Turkish/Caucasus race; a small flock of immature birds were accompanied by a single adult. The rocky crags at the mountain peak did not disappoint, with a sighting of one Alpine Accentor followed by a group of six birds foraging amongst the rocks and scant alpine vegetation. Perhaps it was the scenic back-drop that made this sighting even more spectacular and memorable. I hiked back down to the resort in high spirits, and relished every one of the several encounters I had with Red-fronted Serin flocks. Uludağ was the perfect start to my exploration of Turkey’s avifauna!
|Near the peak on Mount Uludağ.|
|A male Red-fronted Serin, a common but splendid species at Mount Uludağ.|
With a great deal of reluctance I took to the long descent from the Uludağ resort to reach my next destination to the west, on the coast of the Marmara Sea. This was to be another fantastic experience, with more excellent birding in store while also making new friends.