culture

On the Edges

Borderlands are always interesting places.

Mountains plunging into the sea provide stunning landscapes.  Places where cultures bump into each other produce fascinating history (even where they also – all too often – provoke conflict).  It’s at the edges where things are most compelling.

I’ve been in border country since the last post, although I’ve only really appreciated it today.

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Bolu (above) was the last proper city in the hills.  Since then, it’s been small towns and smaller climbs (and some immensely fun downhills), as I’ve crossed from the mountainous interior of Turkey back towards the Sea of Marmara.

And the sea (together with the Aegean, immediately to its south, and the city of Istanbul at its northern end) has been a cultural crossroads since people started writing history.

So the borderland between the hills and the coastal areas is also the edge of a fuzzy cultural boundary.  Although I’m not in Europe yet, things are changing already.  Up in Bolu, things still felt very Asiatic, with the fairly mono-cultural cityscape of mosques, minarets and square buildings dominating.  Within a couple of hundred kilometres, things are much more cosmopolitan.

But the noticeable changes had already begun at Bolu.  Just a few kilometres east of town, my road had been joined in its valley by a motorway.

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That’s not just a road with a designation beginning with ‘M’, as was the case in the former Soviet countries.  It’s a proper, European-style motorway (the main drag between Ankara and Istanbul).  The sort of road where bikes are not allowed.  It’s the first road I’ve seen for months that I can’t ride.

I know that this will be the new normal from here on (and that it’s my normal normal in any case).  But I’ve got so used to rolling along whichever road I want that it feels like a big change.  So does the fact that the chocolate bars in petrol stations have suddenly become the same as at home, where further east, they are all Turkish versions.

I think my perspective might have got a little skewed somewhere along the way…

There are still plenty of reminders that I’m not home just yet.  It’s pretty certain that a flatbed van in Europe wouldn’t be allowed on the road with a ton of apples tied loosely on the back with string.

But that appears to be what caused me a twenty minute delay this morning:

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Thankfully, things got slightly more organised after the big guy in the red shirt started waving his arms and shouting.

This afternoon (Tuesday), the cultural variety and complexity of this area became clearer.  I dropped down to lake Iznik.  I’d been trying to get to a town on the edge of the lake, which is marked up on Google Maps as ‘Nicaea’.  And I’d been getting increasingly concerned that I’d not seen it signposted.  I was just following signs for ‘Iznik’, and hoping that Nicaea would become obvious.

It turns out that Iznik and Nicaea are the same place.  Google uses the Greek name for some unfathomable reason.  Although that was the town’s name when it was established (by a Greek mythological character, apparently), it’s been Iznik for ever as far as the locals are concerned, and Google should probably have caught up by now.

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But it’s not just the names of the town that show how many cultures have had a say in this region over the full course of recorded history.  The city walls, which I casually parked the bike against on the way into town, were originally built by the Ancient Greeks.  The local tourist guide notes, sadly, that ‘only Roman and Byzantine construction remains’.  And that’s still not counting the role of this area of Turkey in the birth of the Ottoman Empire.

There’s an intimidating amount of history in this part of the world, on the edge of so may empires.

I’m going to have a day off tomorrow (Wednesday) to have a proper look around Iznik, and digest some of this stuff.  It’s only about half a mile across, but has ancient churches, mosques, Roman arches, and so on.  It even has a mosque called the Ayasofya, which used to be a church.  Just like Istanbul.  But much, much quieter.

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I’m happy I can get all the layers of history around here, as I’ve decided not to head to the metropolis on the Bosphorus.  I could probably have got to the outskirts today, and entered European Turkey tomorrow.  But I’ve been to Istanbul before, and I’m not quite done with the Asian continent just yet.  And I’ve heard a lot of nightmarish stories about the Istanbul traffic.

Instead, once I’ve had my rest, I’ll head along the south of the Sea of Marmara.  It’ll take an extra few days to get to Europe, but I should see some more interesting places, and enjoy the coastline.

There’s one other, slightly fuzzy edge which merits a quick mention (in my book, at least).  And that’s the edge of space.  This is usually considered to be the Karman Line, and is 100km (62 miles) above the surface of the Earth.

Why is the Karman Line of any interest?  Because, yesterday, while grinding up yet another incline, I reached 100,000 metres (or 100 km) of vertical gain on the round-the-world trip.  I’ve climbed to the edge of space on a bicycle with bags hanging off it.

No wonder my legs need a break…

Remembering How to Ride

It’s funny how you can forget how to do something you’ve been doing perfectly well for eight months.

Though, I suppose it’s no stranger than Tiger Woods forgetting how to play golf, or the England cricket team…  Well, the less said about them, the better, I think.

While I was moaning about the sweating and the headwinds last time, it also turns out that I’d forgotten how to ride in the heat.  I think it was the month in Indonesia; maybe ten degrees celsius cooler than Australia, but much steeper.  I got used to being able to go harder (and having to go harder over the hills) than I could before.  And then I forgot to readjust to new circumstances here.

Anyway, I’ve remembered in the last few days.  Start a little earlier, go a little slower, stop for a little longer in the shade.  And the miles will come.

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The last vaguely hilly section of road so far was just south of Kuala Lumpur, as I passed the motor racing circuit at Sepang (above).  I seem to be just missing a couple of big Malaysian sports events by a few days: Sepang will host the Malaysian Formula One Grand Prix in a couple of weeks, and the country’s biggest bike race (the Tour of Langkawi) is on this week, but sadly nowhere near where I am.

Once past Kuala Lumpur, and having stopped, as expected, at Klang (not as noisy as I’d expected), the roads became pretty much pan flat, and the Beast and I have made some decent ground up the coast.

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The only vague complaint is that the scenery is a bit dull; billions of palm trees and not a huge amount else.

But the towns are as interesting as ever.  It’s still hard to get my head round the diversity of the Malaysian population, with every large-ish town sprinkled with mosques, churches and Chinese temples.  I’ve had a rest day today (Friday) in Sitiawan, which seems to have a large Indian population, and I’m just across the road from a large Hindu temple here:

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What’s surprising (to me, at least) is that there’s no real sense of tension or separation between all those different groups, unlike the immigration / ghettoisation / race-relation issues you tend to see in Europe and the US.  Everyone seems to get along with no major problems.  I guess there may be some underlying difficulties which are hard to sense just passing through, but it feels like it all works pretty well from my cycling outsider’s point of view.

Speaking of cyclists, I’ve started seeing a few other tourists on the road (I’d started wondering when I’d meet any more; half of Australia and the whole of Indonesia had passed without seeing any).  There were a trio in Singapore on my way to the border.  And then two yesterday south of Sitiawan.  All heading the other way, but it’s nice to know there are some others out there.

And finally, you expect to find a few oddities when you’re outside your own culture.  But this was just plain confusing:

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So, is it coffee?  Or tea?  Or something else altogether?  I can tell you’re on the edge of your seat.  Well, it turned out to be a mixture of coffee and tea.  Which is entirely peculiar.  And an innovation which I’m fairly sure nobody ever asked for.

I know it’s hard to see how things can get much more interesting than coffee-tea.  But I’ll keep you posted; you never know what’s out there…