Photo of seaside riding next to the Dardanelles looking across to Gallipoli.
The note from the policeman was in Turkish but it was 2012 and we were travelling without a stove, let alone a phone with a data plan.
The day had begun sunny and warm as I and my cycling partner rode along the Dardanelles. The hills of Gallipoli were visible across the strait as we worked our way further from Istanbul in the second month of our tour. Long enough that we were well into the daily rhythm of finding unobtrusive camp sites each night with modest accommodations thrown in as the weather, terrain, and our moods dictated.
At mid-morning we were labouring down a slight decline on an arrow-straight road against an intensifying wind off the sea. I looked down at my cycling computer and the LCD screen read “12 km/h”. Never one to shy away from a good weather-based tantrum, I pulled my bike off the road and issued a single, bellowing expletive.
Back on the bike with speeds barely in the double digits, the outskirts of a small city became evident. We pulled into town and followed some pleasantly cobbled streets to the waterfront and what’s this? A giant statue of a horse?
We were in the city of Çanakkale, which turned out to be the nearest modern city to the historic city of Troy and this wooden horse was the prop Trojan horse from the 2004 film Troy. Being many weeks into our tour we had entered the stage where our originally planned route was finished and we were now nosing our way south following warm weather and seizing opportunities as they presented themselves.
Here was one such opportunity. We had a pleasant lunch near the sea and wandered the town in the afternoon before realizing time was getting on. It was late October and the evenings were getting shorter so we inquired for rates at the local hotels but found our budget lacking.
While Çanakkale is a city, it’s a small city. We thought, “No problem. We’ll ride out of town and find a nice camp.” We tried the first part in lengthening shadows but found that the sprawl extended further than we had bargained for. Rather than risk true night, we pulled off on the next small road and followed it up a hill until it turned to dirt. At the top of the hill there were some parked cars and a radar tower for ships navigating the adjacent strait.
There was a lot of litter in the parking area and we were more than a bit curious about the cars since they all had occupants but no one else was outside. Soon enough our curiosity was satisfied as we noticed one of the cars was now rocking with a carnal rhythm.
The blackening sky made our decision to stay an easy one and we walked our gear off the road into a grassy field and set up the tent. We felt a bit uneasy but got into bed and fell asleep with a little bit of effort.
Some time later, the tent was illuminated by bright lights and we heard shouting. The atmosphere of our camp location had already put me on edge so, heart racing, I stuck my head out of the tent to see two policemen and a police car had pulled into the field. One had the car’s headlights pointed at the tent and the other was also pointing but with a pistol.
I scrambled out into the dirt in my underwear, hands raised as soon as I had crawled free of the fly. I was babbling some pitiful pleas in English and the policeman lifted his gun. In the silhouette of the car lights I watched him render his weapon safe – but dropped the magazine in the process. The immediate threat had passed but as he fumbled for the magazine in the dirt I wondered if we were dealing with professionals.
With the situation considerably calmed, the gun-wielding officer walked over and tried to speak to us but no common language existed. Feeling that we were in deep trouble we began miming our intention to pack up and leave immediately when the two officers turned to each other and had a short conversation. One wrote something on a slip of paper and returned, giving us the paper and a small shrug before returning to the car. They backed out to the dirt road and disappeared out of sight.
The contrast from glaring headlights to dark night was only one contributor to our feelings of disorientation. On the one hand, the police presence and their final indifference to our chosen campsite calmed some of the fears of criminal elements we had been harbouring earlier in the evening. On the other, I had just had the most terrifying moment of my life when I was yanked from sleep to see a gun pointing at me in my first minute of consciousness.
After a long, long cool down we eventually got a few hours of sleep and awoke to the sunrise. We broke camp and headed out on the road. Sunny days have a good way of giving some perspective as we began to wonder if we had exaggerated the danger of the previous night.
That day we rode to the ruins of Troy and toured the grounds before continuing our ride. A beautiful golden hour and some delightful descents brought us back to the sea where safe accommodation at any price was on the agenda. A sleepy summer resort all but closed for the season looked like it fit the bill. The owner was outside and was happy for us to camp and use the facilities for a small fee. There were showers and a dining area with, and this is important, internet access.
We washed up and pulled out our computer with the policeman’s note in hand and curiosity burning. We entered the Turkish text into a translator and out popped the result, “This is not a safe place.”