Biking in Turkey
We had our second snowfall last night, and though it's warm now, there's
no turning back. It's winter. Time to finally write about what we've
found so far about motorcycling in Turkey.
I'd been riding for about 12 years when we moved to Turkey. After
altogether too much debate, and too much last minute haggling, I decided
to ship our bike, a '94 Yamaha GTS1000, here with us. We came over in
early August, with the intent of having the bike shipped if the riding
here looked reasonable. I'd been in touch with a number of people via the
net who had riding experience in Turkey, as residents or tourists. Most
were quite enthusiastic, but acknowledged some truth to the reputations
of Turkey's drivers and roads.
During our taxi ride from the airport to Bilkent University, where we work,
I began to evaluate the driving and environment, in the midst of massive
culture-shock. We're living about 10km outside Ankara (the capital),
in a modern, planned campus setting. The general Ankara region has
a population of about 4.5 million. The road layout around Ankara,
viewed from the air, would be familiar to a North American driver. Major
national highways meet a large ring road around the city, then continue
as smaller surface streets through the city itself. Traffic in Ankara is
very, very dense. The city has dozens of largely uncontrolled traffic
circles, many of them with 4 or 5 "spokes" of roads, each having 3 or
more lanes, converging in the center. The city has many steep hills,
so the large arterial roads rarely travel straight through. Street
lights are sparse, often out or simply dim, and usually too high to
illuminate anything. Street signs are somewhat small, often obscured,
and street names may change along the same block. Traffic lights are
scattered here and there, and are optional.
Suburban traffic (and Bilkent, especially from the eyes of two
Brooklynites, is definitely suburban) is very heavy, especially during
rush hour. Bilkent, in addition to being a university with over 10,000
students, has 3 elementary and high schools, a _huge_ shopping center,
and a few large apartment complexes. This whole thing is on a spur road
off one of the major highways to Ankara. The highway from Ankara to
our campus is roughly equivalent, in traffic and importance, to NJ
Route 17 to the NY State border, without as many roadside retail
businesses. It's not uncommon for the 10km
from Bilkent to Ankara to take an hour by bus (with no passenger stops)
during rush hour.
The drivers are fast, sloppy, take too many chances, but are strangely
courteous and non-aggressive. People tailgate very closely, but the person
in front almost always moves over as soon as they can. People change
lanes quickly, leaving little room around them, but they almost always
signal first. People run red lights and stop signs (including school
bus drivers with a full load of kids) at least as often as they obey them.
I haven't actually witnessed any accidents, but I've already seen more
busses, semi-trailers, trucks, and cars recently tipped over on the side
of the road (usually from running off the unmarked shoulder, often in
a straight section of major highway) than I've ever seen cumulatively
in the US. While they were adding a 3rd lane to the road running from
campus into Ankara, many vehicles (including the bus we were in) decided
to use the freshly bulldozed, unpaved shoulder in place of the road,
heedless of the flags, cones, and workers. At about 40mph. The back
hoe parked in the middle of the new lane did serve to gently suggest to
people that they merge back into traffic.
Horse drawn carts are not rare on that road. It's less common,
though not unheard of, to see a cart stopped, in the roadway, while
the horse refuels from some grass on the shoulder. The small
flocks of sheep on the side of the road are much less common.
In Turkey, when there's the usual "near miss," or a close pass, or an
abrupt lane change, there's little reaction from surrounding drivers--no
honking, no fists, no shouting, and most importantly, no aggressive
driving on the part of the person who was passed or cut off. No one seems
to "block" people from passing, or get upset when someone runs a light
in front of them. The drivers certainly aren't passive, but most of the
time, someone else's driving just isn't extreme enough to get upset about.
Q. What do red traffic lights, white highway lines, and blue skies
have in common in Turkey?
A. They are all pretty to look at, but mean nothing to drivers.
It sounds like anarchy and chaos, but all in all, everyone understands
that the driving "game" doesn't necessarily obey the law, but it's got
it's own rules. I think I can get used to most of it (and avoid the
worst of the inner city traffic). Some things we've seen, even after
NYC, leave us staring, open-mouthed. Our reaction is gradually changing
from one of amazement to amusement (as long as we're not directly
involved). The jokes in this trip report are an attempt to reflect how
we're beginning to see driving here. Aspects of driving may look bad, but
they aren't necessarily taken that way. A bit of humor and fatalism go
a long way to understanding that, better or worse, things are, in their
essence, different than what we are used to. The popular bumper sticker,
"Insallah" ("If Allah pleases" in the sense of "I hope that...") sums
up the recognition that traffic is a mess and expresses a fatalism that
says it's not under the control of the driver...so why get upset?
Having seen all of that within the first few weeks, we decided to
have the bike shipped over anyway! Turkey has many scenic and historic
sites, and is a fun day or two's travel from the Alps. While there's an
extensive network of private bus coaches, we looked forward to being
able to travel on our own. Jon Kadis (thanks again, Jon!) delivered
the bike to Newark Airport in early September, and it was in Ankara in
a couple of days. About 6 weeks (and a considerable amount of millions
of Turkish lira later), the bike was out of customs!
While anxiously waiting for our baby, we'd promised each other that we
would only ride into Ankara traffic very rarely, and not at night. The
first weekend we had the bike, October 24, we planned a day trip to
Bolu, about 175km northeast of Ankara. It's a lovely little town, an
alpine setting, nestled in pine forests, near a volcanic lake. We had a
nice trip up, once we got past the terror of leaving the city. We were
pleasantly surprised by the trip.
The road surfaces aren't that bad at all, and the potholes (and occasional
debris) are nothing that I haven't seen before. In that respect,
it's a lot like Canada near (& north of) the Assault (Ste. Alphonse
de Rodreguiz). No shoulders, assorted gravel, some very slick surfaces
from the truck traffic, not a lot of traffic volume (outside Ankara--the
city itself is another world!). Gas is plentiful, and seems good (once I
figured out that 3 of the 4 pumps are leaded gas...bad for the catalytic
converter on the GTS). All quite manageable.
The fellow drivers are in a class of their own. Actually, a number of
classes.... The mix of fast (80+mph) & slow (trucks @40, tractors @ 20,
horses @ 5) on the same 2 lane road (signed at 70kph) makes things quite
challenging. You either pass people, or you're liable to be passed on
the right shoulder by a truck doing 20mph+ than you.
Less than 25 miles outside Ankara there's another road obstacle to
deal with. Cattle. Your first indication of "open range" may be the
bodies of large dead cows in the median, or you may encounter a
small herd lesiurely crossing the highway. One of the best things
I've noticed so far is a complete absence of Bambi!
Q. What's a minor traffic infraction in Turkey?
A. Less than 5 dead
We promised we wouldn't go into Ankara much, and certainly not at
night. What do we do the first weekend we have the bike--the weekend
before the country's 75th anniversary, after our first day of riding in
months? We go into Ankara! The traffic was terrible--roads were closed,
people were stopping their cars in the middle of the road and getting
out to watch the fireworks, it was gridlock everywhere.
Why did we do such a thing? There was a group of bikers coming back from a
trip to eastern Turkey (pretty unusual), and meeting at the Hard Rock Cafe
(yes, the shame of it, I had dinner at the Hard Rock Cafe). There were
about 15 bikes in a tour sponsored by the BMW dealer of Istanbul. Mostly
R11GS's (one bike had a really good looking, well machined, dual headlight
setup neatly replacing the single stock lens). I found out about this
from a net.contact, Feza Haznedar (the author of the "Goldwings in Turkey"
This group made quite an entrance. In fact, a group of bikes is so
rare here that they got a police escort through Ankara! Nice bunch of
people, obviously wealthy, but the universality of riding really came
across. Everyone is comparing gear, ('Stitches, electric vests, etc.),
discussing weather, fuel mileage (or is that kilometerage?), etc.
Then next day (Sunday, the week before the nation's 75th Anniversary)
we planned to meet the group at Anitkabir (Ataturk's tomb). Picture
being in NYC on New Year's Eve, and planning "meet" someone in Times
Square...during the midst of a parade of about 1 million people. Suffice
it to say, we never found the group. [The journey by the
Turkish bikers has a nice spread in "Motor Bike", one of the two or
three Turkish language moto magazines available. At least I can
enjoy the pictures!]
What was fascinating for us was the official response that we received
riding to the mausoleum. We could see it from many blocks away, from many
angles, but streets were closed for the parade. What was the response from
the [very intimidating looking, heavily armed] traffic cops to these two
foreigners on a really weird bike who were asking something in broken
pidgin Turkish about meeting other motorcyclists? We got waved through
all the barricades, and parked about 3 meters from the parade...between
an "official" Mercedes (gold-plated license plate, uniformed driver,
curtained off windows...) and a van full of Gendarmes (lots of really
big guns and great uniforms--those guys ride black BMW R80GSs, 2-up,
fast). It's not like NYC at all!
In the New York area, and to a much lesser extent around the US, I'm
accustomed to hostile reactions to motorcycling. I've got a somewhat
unusual bike, and that also gets some comment in the US. Here in Turkey,
it's just the opposite. We've gotten great reactions from everyone, and
very little curiosity about the specifics of the GTS. I get the usual
questions...how fast does it go (and kilometers sound more impressive
than miles), and how much did it cost (too much), but in general, being
on a big motorcycle just serves as an excuse for the normal friendly
conversations that spring up everywhere. A very nice change for me.
On November 3rd, we rode down to the Mediterranean coast (a conference for
Meredith, vacation for me). It was chilly leaving Ankara, but warmed up by
the time we got to Mersin, about 450km. Very neat. Most roads weren't that
twisty, but the sheer foreigness cannot be overestimated. It was wonderful
to see the Taurus Mountains gradually revealing themselves in the distance
as we raced along flat, straight roads next to a huge salt lake.
Q. I've imported a US-spec. vehicle into Turkey. I know that
miles are longer than kilometers, so how do I convert
the numbers on my speedometer?
A. Multiply the speed limit (shown in km/h) by 1.5 and that's
about the right number in mph to keep up with traffic.
Even planning our trip to Mersin was interesting. We stuck to larger,
"national" highways. One problem is that good maps are (literally)
military secrets here. I've got a decent national map (Lonely Planet,
purchased in NYC) with absolutely no city detail--even of Ankara or
Istanbul, and a detailed (walking) map of downtown Ankara. You can
purchase some foreign published (German) maps of Turkey, but they are
scare. I've yet to find a map that gives a 35 to 50 mile radius around
I'm still getting used to evaluating what a road will be like from
our maps. The maps seem accurate, but the scale--not just kilometers
vrs miles--is new to us. Except close to a major city, the "interstate"
highways are often one lane in each direction. Slightly smaller roads,
state highway equivalents in the US, may have stretches of gravel, or
be as small as your favorite local Sunday morning sport route...with
major truck, car, and horse-drawn wagon traffic punctuating the long
stretches without another vehicle in sight. People who've ridden with me
know that I certainly don't have an aversion to riding on dirt (and some
mud and gravel thrown in for fun), even though the GTS is a bit of a pig,
but I have to admit I'm keeping away the smaller lines on the map here!
The roads along the Mediterranean have great twisty riding potential,
and even better sight-seeing potential. Terrific scenery, a stop a
some Grecco-Roman ruins, then a picnic on the water made for a nice day
while were in Mersin. My riding was restrained, however. The roads were
visibly slick--shiny in the sunlight, and there's no margin for error
on the shoulder or in the other drivers. I'm very, very conscious here
about how sparse and shallow the support systems are. Whether they are
mechanical or medical, in an accident, repairs and spare parts would be
very hard to come by.
On our way back from Mersin, we stopped at Cappadocia. It's a stunning
region. You approach the area across the ubiquitous dun tan and somewhat
monotonous countryside, to find a series of valleys and rifts stretched
lace-like over a space about 60 miles by 25 miles. It's an area defined by
ancient volcanic boulders and soft rock composed of volcanic ash. Where
the boulders remain, the erosion has been limited, leaving thousands
of phallic cones, each topped with a boulder. Where the soft tuffa was
exposed, people carved their homes out of the rock. Initially inhabited
over 2,000 years ago, some of these homes are still in use. The "motel"
where Meredith and I stayed was carved from the tuffa. As you travel
from the plain down into each valley and around the immense cones and
features, you can enjoy the curving roads and wash of pinks and violet
shades of light across the pale khaki landscape.
My current riding has been quite a bit less scenic. As I said, the campus
is fairly large. It's set on a hill, with the shopping center at the
bottom. There are 3 principal roads running up the hill, defining a W,
with ravines separating each road. On the left is the prep school where
I work, in the center is the our apartment, and on the right is the
university campus where Meredith works. For me, getting to work is an
active 20+ minute hike across the ravines and a stream, an early bus ride
with the school children, a walk down to the bottom of the W to get the
hourly campus bus, or a motorcycle ride. If I go the "wrong way" through
the main campus to the right side branch of the W, then across the bottom,
I can stretch the morning ride to about 3 miles and find virtually all
the curves. As long as the weather is warm enough, that's my route. I'm
starting to like some of the small traffic circles on campus...
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