To Izmir and Beyond
Ferries and Factories
To escape the Istanbul traffic, I took the two hour ferry south across the Sea of Marmara to Bursa. Swathed in rain gear against the sullen weather, my spirits were low as the boat wallowed past tiny settlements perched on rocky islands.
From the ferry terminal to Bursa where I had booked a room for the night was only 20 miles but each one dragged on and on as the weather refused to rain for real or clear up. Instead, it lay like a humid blanket, soaking me from the inside and outside of my waterproofs. As I neared Bursa, I began to realize that it is not a small city (1.8 million) and there is absolutely no infrastructure for road-going objects that are slower than a freight truck.
Twelve miles out, the industrial zone began. Thousands of acres of haphazardly developed stitched together patchworks of factories, warehouses, chemical plants, fabrication and welding shops, and power plants. Bumping along through this economic engine on a network of outdated cobblestone streets, I started to wonder what kind of regulations the Turkish government maintains on its industrial production.
Not wanting to return to the coast road by traversing the horrible Bursa traffic once more, I struck South and East through the low mountains which rise from the margins of the city. Carpeted by a low forest of pines, the nutrient poor, dusty soil hides a subterranean wealth.
Rock trucks run like ants from the hills to the valleys, bearing their loads of massive marble blocks and gravel. With every few turns of the road, a new quarry can be seen. Entire hill tops gone and the guts of valleys torn out to reveal the white bones of the mountains below.
Back On Flat Ground
From just west of Bursa to Izmir, there is a set of vaguely connected valleys which provide a path through an otherwise rugged region. They also provide fertile ground for hundreds of small, agrarian villages. I always find it interesting to see what’s different between one country’s farming communities and another’s.
More so than Romania and Bulgaria, Turkey’s agricultural production makes full use of heavy diesel machinery. The horses and carts of Eastern Europe are once again replaced by tractors and wagons, the scythes with cutter bars, and the haystacks with bales.
Despite this, field sizes remain small and diverse of crop with the exception of cotton. Cotton, corn, wheat, cruciferous and root vegetables, various feed grasses, and olive orchards seem to make up the majority of production in this area.
Just a few hundred feet from the major highways, the dwellings change from relatively modern concrete housing units to primarily older, mud-brick and stucco houses. As they deteriorate, I could see that many of the older ones are essentially half-timbered in their construction, but normally are covered with stucco.
What was a visually attractive region with pretty, traditional villages and tiny dirt roads was rather marred by the epidemic of plastic. They must not have any organized trash collection system because piles of discarded plastic, rubber, and glass collect everywhere. Through all of the fields, small pieces of degraded plastic bags and wrappers fly and settle like confetti. On the outskirts of one village, the road wound through what was once a small quarry of about 6 acre’s area. Now it is clearly the unofficial waste dump of the surrounding villages. As I rode through, there was a man with a tractor and wagon, pitchforking great wads of plastic and rubber onto the ground.
The cultural divide between genders was also particularly obvious in this region. In the center of every town, a tea-house or three provided outdoor seating which was occupied by what must have been half the village’s male population at any hour of the day. No women could be seen in these gatherings. Rather, their public presence was usually in the form of hanging clothes to dry or walking to the village market. In the fields, women worked in small crews at weeding or harvesting by hand. The men who worked operated the farm machinery and drove the trucks.
End of the Line
In the five days it took me to get from Istanbul to Izmir, the political situation went from bad to worse. When I left Istanbul, I had intended to ride the length of the western coast as far as Antalya but by this point, it was becoming clear that continuing in such a vulnerable manner towards the South East just wasn’t advisable. Therefore, I decided that Izmir would be the end of the ride and the best place from which to take the train across the country to Georgia, an up and coming Mecca for backpackers in Europe and Central Asia.
A bittersweet parting, I was happy for the note that my bicycle journey ended on. The last four days had been fascinating in culture and scenery, beautiful in weather, and altogether ideal in riding conditions. My last two days into Izmir, I had a strong tailwind and flat roads as if the trip itself were waving goodbye.
Pamukkale En Company
Back in the Istanbul hostel, I became friends with an Australian named Zoë. She was backpacking down the coast as well, so we agreed that if I caught up to her, we should hang out again. I did catch up to her in Izmir, the day before she was to go to the ancient city of Hierapolis at Pamukkale. I had several extra days in my timeline of selling the bike and getting to Tbilisi to meet Emma, so Zoë and I agreed to team up for this side-trip.
Pamukkale is known for a hillside above the tiny village which has a natural flow of mineral rich water that streams down its slope and has created beautiful travertine pools and a thick mineral crust over the Earth, making the hill appear as if covered in a fresh, sparkling blanket of snow even in the heat of summer.
The actual village of Pamukkale lays nestled against the base of the hill. Today, tourism is clearly the near-singular source of money this village but it is also surrounded by more of those tiny Turkish farming communities. Despite the tourism, Pamukkale is an adorable little town with houses stuccoed in happy hues. We arrived at the very end of the tourist season so most of the people we saw in the village were actually locals and the guesthouse we stayed at was nearly empty.
From what we saw the next day, it appears that the majority of tourists that visit the travertines are regurgitated from monstrous tour buses, walk the path through the travertines, perhaps visit the amphitheater of Hierapolis, and return to their giant diesel cocoons.
When we arrived at the lower gate just after opening time, the morning sun gave the sky a warm glow as hot air balloons bobbed like jellyfish in molasses and hang gliders drifted overhead. The mineral deposit was very strange and felt like sandpaper on my feet. The water was soft and warm, almost oily from the all of the dissolved minerals.
I had read online that a couple of years ago, some hotels were built at the top of the travertines hill, and that they had damaged and stained the site by polluting the water. The government had the hotels torn down, but there remains a large eyesore of a swimming pool at the foot of the hill, and the water no longer flows through the natural travertine pools. Instead, most of it has been diverted down the tourist path where it feeds artificial pools instead. The travertines of pamukkale are surely one of the worst examples of mismanaged tourism I have seen yet, and the damage was not even done by the tourists.
Further up the hill past the Turkish bath tourist-trap lies the sprawling ruins of the Greek, Phrygian, and Roman city of Hierapolis. Not much is known about the city, but it had its beginning as a collection of temples where one could come to worship and heal in the mineral hot springs.
The most impressive structure of the city was a massive amphitheater. The façade behind the stage has been masterfully reconstructed and the acoustics still carry sound to the audience like a mathematically engineered concert hall. For once, the tourist crowd didn’t irritate me because in the theater seating, even their numbers were dwarfed. This amphitheater was actually more impressive than the famous one at Ephesus. Across the ridge, ruins of low dwellings are scattered here and there, but on the far side of the city, the main thoroughfares has been excavated along with many tombs, a basilica, public latrines, and a triple-arched entrance gate.
I was very glad to have Zoë with me for my first time using the long distance bus system; the Izmir bus station was like an airport, but more chaotic with little signage even in Turkish. Furthermore, having someone to hang out with and talk to makes any trip better and I’m glad that I managed to meet back up with a travel friend for the first time this trip!
Earth, Wind, and Fire
One night as we were having dinner, an official looking pickup truck drove by with the orange flashing lights of a utility vehicle. In the bed of there was an apparatus with two pipes sticking up into the air. From the apparatus came the loud whine of a pump and a white fog spewed from the pipes. As it passed, all the guests at the restaurant covered their drinks and a minute later, the smell of pesticide reached our noses. Wondering what we had just inhaled, we asked the host of our guesthouse what the truck had been spraying. Surprised that we did not know, he told us that the government sprays mosquito pesticide most evenings in towns and cities all across the country.
The next night when this topic came up again, Zoë and I also wondered why in weeks of traveling Turkey had there not been a single day when the air was clear. The climate here is currently sunny and cloudless most days but even then, blue or brown haze hangs thick in every valley making photography difficult and views opaque. One would think that the air would be clearer so close to the sea. Turning to google, we found that the air quality of Turkey is uniformly bad, pushing into dangerous levels of pollution around Istanbul. The cause of this is primarily industrial production like I saw outside of Bursa and all along my route through the countryside as well as the burning of low quality coal for energy. Furthermore, one of the few search results we found on this topic was detailing the extensive efforts of the government to suppress research into the air and water quality of Turkey. Researchers who risk publishing their studies find their funding cut, their jobs terminated, and their careers in Turkey finished.
After a couple of days selling the bike, finding a backpack, and mailing gear home, I took a day trip to the Roman city of Ephesus. It is one of the most completely preserved ancient cities in the world, second only to Pompeii according to some.
To get there, I took the morning train to Selçuk then a short minibus to the lower gate of the site. As I entered the complex, the ruins grew slowly in size on either side of the path until I reached the beginning of the main road where it turns toward the all-important harbor.
Founded in the 10th century B.C. By Ionian and Attic Greek colonists, Ephesus saw most of its growth after passing into Roman control in 129 B.C. Its most famous features are the now-destroyed temple of Artemis, the Library of Celsus, a 25,000 seat amphitheater, an open-air public bath, and the Temple of Hadrian.
While much of the history reads like a long series of battles fought and temples built, the grandeur of the city needs little explanation and my favorite insights were of the details of daily life like how small square holes cut into the columns along the road were to hold oil street lamps and that inscriptions were found in the public latrines indicating where to find the city brothel. Roman soldiers were forbidden from taking wives, so this was commonplace in their cities.
Tonight I’ll board a series of trains to get me across Turkey to the mountainous country of Georgia. After exploring the two biggest cities there, I will try to make it to some of the smaller mountain destinations but it is getting quite late in the season and some passes will be closed or closing soon.
Once I’ve had enough freezing my butt off in Georgia, I’ll fly to Bangkok and start working my way north to Chiang Mai where Emma will fly after her study abroad program in Manchester ends. I’m really looking forward to the South Eastern Asia travel experience and all that will come with it.