Breaking the Rules – Trail Burnout between Istanbul and Iznik
9th October 2018
Welcome back! So this is the post that was meant to be about the big hike, about the Sufi Trail, this pilgrimage like path leading the roughly 800km from Istanbul to Mardin. Hiking this trail was a big part of why I embarked on this trip, bringing me from London to a social circus school out here in Mardin, from where I am writing to you today. However, sometimes, and especially this summer, life seems to have other plans…
23rd of August 2018 – Istanbul to Kurtköy, Kilometre count unknown, somewhere between 20 and 30
After an evening of uncharacteristicly overwhelming pre-trail worries, concerns about whether the bike would hold up to carry my little brother safely from Istanbul back to Budapest, I begin my first day on trail equally uncharacteristically late. Normally, hiking is the one thing that will get me out of bed before sunrise and as the first rays of warming light touch the road and my retinae, I’ll have my back already turned on the city. Not today. At around 8.30am, I am sharing in a decadent rooftop breakfast buffet with Simon, my nerves slightly calmed by the comfort of a large meal before digging into the kilometres ahead. My little brother looks like death and feels the part. He does not look like today is a good day to start a long bike trip for him and, feeling ill and achy, barely touches his breakfast. He assures me that he will be fine and so will I.
Around 9.15 I find myself alone, for the first time in weeks as I realise. I need the purge of the hike, getting away from the crowded city, the tourists, the overwhelmingness of other humans. Usually a hiking purist – one of the annoying ones that never hitch a ride, take a train or a bus or cut a corner – I decide to get out of Istanbul asap and start from our hostel instead of the official trail head. Not a single waymark meets the eye as I make my way downhill to Yenikapi Terminali, one of Istanbul’s ferry ports, to be ferried over to Yalova.
Despite the guidebook’s suggestion to stop everywhere, take in the sights and collect stamps for my Sufi Trail passport, I only stop at one mosque, a comparatively small, inconspicuous affair near the ferry terminal. Its garden is lush and green, its insides ornamented with intricate calligraphy and its soft carpets carress my feet as I linger, looking at the ceiling and enjoying the distinctive lack of tourists. I tire so easily of cities now, as I did of London before leaving, and despite Istanbul’s rich history and stunning architecture, I long for the peace of nature, I long for walking long hours and solitude – or so I think.
On my way out of town, I bump into a part time king, a student who works dressed up as an Ottoman Emperor in front of a touristy shop. He is taking pictures with a young lady as I catch his eye walking past. Instinctively, I smile and he looks somewhat desperate under his heavy headdress and long coat. ‘Wait! Don’t go, please,‘ he mouthes and I slow my pace, stop until he is finished taking pictures, He needed to talk to me, he said, and we chat about life and its mysterious ways, about part-time jobs and journeys for some time. I gift him a handstand, a small token of what I do, and he asks me for a picture before I leave, walking closer to Konya.
When I reach Yenikapi Terminali, I am too late for a spot on the 11.30 and 11.45 ferries. The next one is due at 1.45pm and even the cafés here don’t offer WiFi. I am weary of words, of writing, of worrying, and bury my nose in my Kindle, sipping my Turkish coffee too quickly for it to last even a fraction of my waiting time.
When I arrive in Yalova, I hope for waymarks, an opportunity to switch off and allow myself to be carried by a ubiquitous colour scheme, but except for one sticker announcing the Sufi Trail on the back of a traffic sign on the way out of Yalova, there are none to be found. In fact, it’s the only sign of being on trail that I have encountered so far. I feel demotivated, oddly disconnected. There is no trail family as there was on the camino, and mostly parks to be admired. As I leave Istanbul behind, fewer people in cafés and at roadside stalls speak English, or, in fact, any language I can communicate in. I feel accutely lonely, the sun burning above, my backpack digging into my sides and shoulders, and I let the doubts creep in.
There is no rhythm or flow to my walking today as I constantly stop to check the GPS track in lieu of waymarks. I worry about my battery draining fast, about where to stay the night, feeling suddenly unsure about wild camping all by my lonesome in this patriarchic land where I can talk to noone it seems.
Over some ice cream, which is entertainingly served a white, vanilla-flavoured lump on a small plate accompanied by a fork, I find WiFi and reach out to Chevrel, an English lady hosting hikers on the trail, some 12km down the trail. She says yes, I can spend the night and the prospect of English-speaking company lifts a rock off my chest. In my solitude, disconnect and doubt, I hardly manage to enjoy the trail and instead of walking along some of the most scenic paths on the whole way, I find myself road-walking and cutting corners on day one, simply to arrive somewhere where I can connect with other humans and rest.
When I arrive at Chevrel’s place in the early evening, I am greeted by an international volunteer couple, she from Canada and he from the Netherlands, in a place in the Turkish North-West, so small I wonder if it even qualifies as a village. Four dogs wag their tails at me and examine my hands and legs with their wet happy snouts and I am so relieved to be here, I don’t even want to think of what lies ahead.
For the first time since leaving Budapest, I allow myself a proper handstand training session on the cold, smooth tiles of my room while a Canadian girl, a Dutch boy and an English woman are preparing dinner in the adjacent kitchen. Once more I question why I’m always leaving, thinking how nice it must be to stay in one place for some time, invest in a home, create something to last.
24th of August 2018 – Kurtköy to Iznik
I start earlier than yesterday, but even at 7.30, none of my laundry has dried and I steal a pair of unfamiliar, dry socks of the rack and feel guilty when my lovely host gives me a bag of fresh, home-grown hazelnuts for the way.
Even before 8am, the sun easily cracks the 30°C mark and I struggle to fall into a happy rhythm of click, clack, as my hiking poles strike the ground on the way up the hill out of Kurtköy. Tiny, black flies form a cloud around my head, presumably getting high on my sweat and holding a competition of which one of them can find an untimely death on the surface of my eyes first. My head is spinning and I am anything but enjoying the hike, the solitude, the lack of way marks or civilisation. I am largely walking on some unmarked trail, following the GPS and sometimes losing any sight of a path, battling through flies and thorny bushes.
As I reach a clearing, I come to face my first stand-off with not one but two sheep dogs. Feeling bold – or simply too lazy for a detour – I try to cut through the middle of the herd of sheep, much to the large sheep dog’s dismay. He makes a beeline for me, barking loudly and clenching his teeth in an attempt to look intimidating. It totally works. I put my hands up and backtrack, now walking a huge arc around the sheep, trying to exude calmness, when a second, somewhat smaller shepherd appears, growling in support of his colleague. I mime the action of picking up stones and it takes some time and a few more tentative steps before I actually find any. Having made my way around the herd, I throw the stones in the general direction of the dogs who are still following me. I don’t have any intention of hitting them but simply wish to be left to my own devices.
Even this encounter provokes little emotional response from me. I am homesick – an odd feeling for someone who doesn’t currently know where ‘home’ is to be found – and wonder silently what the point of anything is if I don’t get to share it?
When I reach the town of Orhangazi around midday, I find a café serving omelettes and, more importantly, WiFi. I reach out to a few friends, but find no consolation. I feel so tired of always being on the move, so ridiculously lonely and so pathetic as I am wallowing in self-pity, missing my cycling companion, my little brother, the idea of a basecamp somewhere. After finishing my meal and with my battery precariously low for following the GPS track, I still can’t bring myself to carry on. I walk to a nearby park, lie down on a bench, curled around my pack, watching people and trees, and then I find myself sobbing like a lost child in the middle of Orhangazi. I am overcome by such intense sadness that I simply don’t know how, or why, to carry on. I know that physically, I am more than capable of hiking, and, being aware of this, even my pride does nothing to stop me from breaking the rules.
I want to stop, I want to try again tomorrow, but there are no hostels or guest houses in all of Orhangazi and for the first time, I contemplate taking a bus or a train into a nearby town. I check the map and find that the nearest spot that appeals to me is Iznik, around 40km further down the trail. It would be skipping more than one day, but I simply need to get out of here, and on the bus to Iznik, allowing myself a break, I smile for the first time today.
Upon arrival, I check into a large hotel room with a double bed. A safe space all to myself, for less than 8 GBP. I have a well needed shower, do my laundry, call my mum and hide from the world for a while, texting friends and talking about my troubles on the trail. My favourite response comes from a dear friend who is a long distance hiker herself, and a much more accomplished one at that: ‘Don’t quit on a bad day, but feel free to quit on a mediocre day,’ she says and I take her advice to heart.
Then I go out to explore and find that Iznik is astonishingly beautiful and that there is no shame in breaking my own trail rules, just relief.
On my way back to the hotel, I am stopped by an English speaking man and his Turkish friend. I share tea and small talk with them and they decide that I am crazy for hiking such a long trail and for not having a permanent home. Come ti think of it, they are probably right. They ask me whether I am scared and tell me to be cautious. Then, ironically, the English speaker gets touchy feely. I show clear discomfort as he squeezes my triceps, declaring that I must be very strong. I push his hands away as he reaches for my belly. When I ask him what he thinks he is doing, he says that he is looking at my abs. I tell him not to look at me with his hands while his friend sits smiling, silent. Conversation resumes, albeit a little more guarded on my part, and after another glass of tea, I make my excuses to return to the hotel.
Friends from the Sufi Trail orga team have arranged a tour of the town for me in the morning.
25th and 26th of August 2018 – Iznik
After a long sleep I am met by Candar in front of my Hotel. We do not share a single word in any language and he gets his phone out to translate that soon, his friend will arrive and that he can translate. Sure enough, Samet arrives and makes the communication a little easier.
The two men are from the municipality of Iznik, also known by its Greek name of Nicaea. The two of them are both very knowledgeable and incredibly hospitable. They show me the four old gates to the town, the remains of an aqueduct and so many excavation sites that I begin to lose track.
Iznik is full of archaelogical and cultural wonders. At its heart stands the ancient Hagia Sophia mosque, previously a church, then a mosque, later a museum and since 2011 functioning as a place of religious worship again. It attracts tourists, locals and stray dogs alike and I am smitten with the building and the park surrounding it.
Candar’s daughter Zehra creates little Youtube videos about Iznik for the municipality and as a foreign sensation, I now feature in some of them, standing quietly next to the girl, not having a clue what is being said.
Despite the interesting tour, I am struggling today, coughing, sneezing and feeling generally week. I seem to have contracted Simon’s illness and when I am offered a municipality room for free by my two guides, I gratefully accept.
Before I know it, I spend the next two days between the bed, the bathroom and the cold tiles of the room’s floor, providing momentary relief from heat stroke, caughing and generally feeling miserable. Somewhere outside, weddings are happening and music is playing until 4 in the morning. There is no air conditioning and the daily mean hovers somewhere around 40°C.
I use the time of to consult with friends and supporters of my hike. I promise to pass my donations for Sirkhane circus school on once I reach Mardin, but decide to quit the hike.
On Monday, I will return to Chevrel’s and Alan’s farm as a volunteer, resting and staying in one place so I can come to Mardin’s social circus project recharged, full of energy and love to give. And I get to return the pair of socks after all!
More on farm and social circus life soon!