‘It’s a beautiful place, fairy tale like. Green, white, blue, pink shores. Amazing sunsets, wild flamingos, a mirror like lake, pure white flatness, as far as the eye can see. What else does one need?’ Both Guido and I knew next to nothing about the enormous salt lake in central Turkey, so after hearing words like that, we decided to find out, not knowing where or what we got ourselves into.
The adventure began on the seventh of June. We were covering some good ground towards Lake Töz when the villages slowly started drying up. Barren plains, sandy dunes, only two cars in the last hour, nasty headwinds, not a single farm in sight, miles and miles of lonely roads and heavy, black clouds forming in the direction we were traveling. Guido looked worried. Two days earlier we were caught off guard by a serious thunderstorm. It cleaned and polished me thoroughly but soaked Guido and his backpack, erasing for good some of the notes in his diary. Naturally, this time, he was on guard.
We pedaled faster. According to the map, there was a village nearby that, judging its size, should be hosting a market or a place to get some dinner. Bad luck, just some clay houses and an old truck selling watermelons and rice. The clouds were coming in closer fast. ‘Let’s try hitting the last village before the lake and before…’ He paused for a second. ‘Before all hell breaks loose.’ That’s what we did, in dry condition we reached Bozan. Despite being bigger, Bozan hosted no market, no shop, only an abandoned gas station. Then we heard a voice: ‘Hi, hiii, hiiiii.’ A grey man was waving from down the street. ‘Sprechen Sie Deutsch?’ Guido sighed with relief. ‘Merabar! Deutsch, das ist kein Problem.’
‘Meine Name ist Sherifi. Kommen Sie nach meine Hause.’ We followed the smiling man who introduced us to his beautiful wife Jemli. They gave us olives, tomatoes, bread, cay and their life story. After an hour of talking and eating, Sherifi guided us to the local mosque where we could wash and sleep. Arriving on the inner court of the religious place, the clouds released every ounce of water they were carrying. It was a serious rainfall that kept on going, well into the night.
The next morning, Guido, still a little dizzy from being woken at 4:30 in the morning by a rather surprised local mulla and his followers who weren’t informed a cyclist was camping in their holy house, we were ready for Lake Töz. Our plan was to cross the lake with the help of a dirt road that divided the lake into a small lake and a giant lake. It took us not long to find the dirt road. Full of good spirits – the sun was shining – Guido steered us onto the gravel. After a kilometer or so, I saw and felt trouble. The rain had soaked the road, turning dry gravel into sticky mud. Within seconds we were stuck – thick, grey mud everywhere. My wheels didn’t turn any longer. Nevertheless, he tried and gave it all for a minute, hoping brute force would get us through. Too bad, we moved not even fifty meters.
Now, up and until this point, I had only heard him screaming seriously once. Back then, it was directed towards the wind, who couldn’t care less. This time I heard him scream and curse louder. Yeah, for the first time he was quite angry, getting himself stuck in the mud on a road that stretched towards the horizon for at least another five kilometers, maybe more. He gave it a second push, and a third, all the while blaming himself, blaming me, blaming the rain, blaming whatnot. Eventually he stopped and sat down.
Trying to catch a breath, sweat running all over his face, he began thinking out loud. ‘Ziggy, tell me, what are our options here? I can call Sherifi, I have his number. He has a four wheel drive. Or I can walk back to the village we came from, but I don’t like that. Also I can walk to the next village on the other side of the lake, which is farther but seems bigger and gives me the opportunity to scout the road ahead. Option four, I can get rid of all the mud on you, keep trying to push us through and hope for better roads. Scenario two and three mean I have to abandon you for some time. What do you prefer?’ In these matters I have no opinion. I just want us to be rolling. And above all, he got us in this mess so he should get us out. ‘Okay, first I call Sherifi, and if he doesn’t pick up, then I am heading for the big village.’ Sherifi didn’t pick up so there he went, leaving me behind, becoming not more than a single dot on the damned road.
He never made it to the village. Halfway, or even further, I don’t know, he turned around. When he was back, he said: ‘Ziggy, all of my life I have leaned on others in these kind of situations. One of the reasons I choose for this journey with you is to figure out if I am capable of handling shit like this myself. So that’s what we’re going to do. I am going to peel off all the mud and try again. We keep on trying till we hit better dirt or… I don’t know any or. Let’s get to it!’
We tried and tried. More sweat, more cursing, more mud, more pushing. Then, about half an hour later, we found drier ground. Again he gave it all. Mud, stones, sand, dust flying everywhere. ‘I think we made it, Ziggy.’ Too early, another stretch of wet soil was waiting for us. He didn’t give in though. Half an hour later, we were cruising. This time, no more mud. We followed our journey, taking a rest in Sereflikochisar and finally found a camping spot in an abandoned sewage pipe, used – according to the traces – by sheep hiding from the sun. He saw some flamingos that evening and tasted the salty water. Yet, he wasn’t satisfied. ‘Too much traffic, too many people, too much noise. Tomorrow we are trying it from the other side. We have an extra day since the others [we were planning on meeting three other cyclists near the lake] are taking it slowly.’
So the next day, we cycled to Aksaray, loaded up and headed for the lake again, this time approaching it from the south. We passed the last village, filled the water bottles to the brim and began riding a vast plain without any roads. We pedaled for an hour, no lake. Shepherds and tough people in pick-up trucks with hunting guns rode towards us. ‘What are you doing,’ they asked. ‘Töz Gölu,’ he answered, pointing to the far distance. ‘But the snakes, and the shepherd dogs… They bite you!’ He laughed. ‘Everybody keeps warning me but I have not seen many. And the ones I saw were either afraid of me or kind, both snakes and dogs.’ This time they laughed, making signs with their hands and heads, probably meaning ‘crazy’ or ‘stupid’.
A second hour of cycling, still no lake. ‘Ziggy, where is that goddamn lake? According to the map we should be there.’ He forgot the fact that the map was outdated. Extreme droughts and farming loads of wheat right next to the lake made sure it had been shrinking dramatically. So we kept on going untill we found mud we recognized. ‘It’s getting wetter, Ziggy. We are almost there.’ Eventually we did find the lake, but not after getting stuck again. ‘Fuck this, we are camping right here, right now. I walk the last bit.’ He saw some flamingos that evening, this time without distracting noise, without any artificial light.
Not only he but I too, I must admit, thought the day of adversity was behind us. Little did we know. The following morning, real problems emerged. First, I was still covered in mud. Although the warm night dried some of it, making it easier to get rid of, we kept on running into the same mud, facing the same problem. Then, after reaching drier ground, which took a lot of time and a lot of water, Don Quixote made the bold decision not to return to the last village we passed the day before, but instead taking a shortcut into the wide unknown and head straight for Eskil, the town we were supposed to meet the other cyclists. ‘Ziggy, we can do this. You know I never like riding the same route twice. Besides that, it’s only twenty five or thirty kilometers this way and somewhere over there must be a gravel road. We will find it, I guarantee it. Eskil is around the corner.’
If he heard himself again, he would either be laughing or ashamed of himself for underestimating Lake Töz. We got ourselves so far on the immense plain, there was just nothing, only mud and low growing, thorny bushes, meaning: he couldn’t ride me, afraid of getting stuck or a puncture. What made things even worse, all looked the same. ‘Ziggy, we have to find the dirt road, quickly. Then I can ride us, ride us to water. If not, I have to push you for at least another four hours and I don’t have that much water left. Oh, I shouldn’t have used so many yesterday, washing the salt away.’
We didn’t find the dirt road that morning, only improvised clay shelters belonging to shepherds that ran their goats and sheeps over the rugged terrain. These huts posed a dilemma. There was water to be found for sure but every hut was guarded by one or more overprotective Anatolian shepherd dogs. We had seen these white and grey furred, black nosed, almond eyed dogs, fully grown the size of a pony, a lot on the road and weren’t afraid. Once you stop and talk a little to them, they run or you get a chance to pet them. But the dogs of Lake Töz, boy, they were different. Not scared, not nice, just ferocious.
‘Let’s try that shelter over there. I can’t see any dogs and it looks like it has something to offer.’ The beating sun does strange things to the sight of men. Out of nothing two adult dogs were present, circling around us. Guido first tried talking to them, then scare them off. It didn’t help. They were coming in closer, showing their sharp teeth, barking aloud. ‘For fucks sake, Ziggy. One of them has gotten a grip on the flag. It’s tearing it apart. They really don’t care.’ Just as suddenly as the dogs appeared, a shepherd on a motorcycle came to the rescue. It were his dogs, they listened to him and the threat was gone. ‘Cay,’ asked the shepherd. ‘Tesekkuler,’ Guido answered, still with some fear in his eyes.
The friendly shepherd not only gave him tea, he also prepared a traditional shepherd meal. The wonderful food and sweet tea lifted the spirits in such a way, Guido grew overconfident and forgot to ask for some water. Only after a few kilometers did he realize. ‘Too bad, Ziggy. With the sun almost on its highest point, I have to limit my use of water. Completely unnecessary, fool that I am.’
We kept on moving over the plain, slowly, not steadily. When there was dry ground, free of bushes, we cycled seven or eight kilometers an hour, bumps and holes in the terrain not allowing us to go any faster. When there was mud or thorns, he pushed me. An hour went by, no dirt road. Another half an hour, only shepherd tracks that turned into dead ends. ‘Okay, I have only a few drops left (he forgot about his emergency water bottle in one of our bags, but other than that, it was true: he had run out of water) and there is no sign of a road, no shepherd nearby. The gps says we are close but I don’t trust that map anymore. Furthermore, I think I can see Eskil or some town in the far distance. But it can also be a Fata Morgana. At this point, I doubt everything. What are we ought to do? What are we supposed to do?’ He looked at me, then stared for a minute or two to the ground. ‘The same as yesterday, Ziggy. Get ourselves out of this trouble by blindly trying.’
So we pushed through for another half an hour, and another. Without any screaming, without any cursing. We zigzagged over the plain, hoping this behavior would increase our chances of finding the road. Then, after taking a random course to the left, there was a straight line visible. ‘Oh, how I hope this is the road.’ It was the road, in all its grey simpleness. ‘We are not there, though! Ziggy, we need water! Boy-o-boy, I am going to drink all of Turkey’s water when I find a tap!’
With a soft breeze in the back, we flew over the dirt road, heading in the direction of what we thought was Eskil. It took us another hour to reach the town, meaning for the first time that day he was right when he said earlier it would be four more hours of pushing and struggling if we hadn’t found the road. The first market on the outskirts of the town was robbed of water, soda and ice cream. How he smiled. ‘Two challenges in two days, Ziggy. We passed our exams, but not with flying colors. We still have to learn a lot. I mean, a-lot-a-lot. And fast, Iran is waiting for us.’ Not long after this moment, the three other cyclists showed up in Eskil and all was but good.