Izmir: Turning East

Izmir Sightseeing with Sencer

The metropolitan area of Izmir is situated on the shores of a large bay that reaches almost fifty kilometres inland and is surrounded on all sides by high mountains. All along the flat shoreline and lining the lower slopes of the mountains air-conditioned multi-storey buildings dominate the townscape. In contrast to Istanbul, where almost every square inch of soil was covered by concrete and tarmac, its narrow streets clogged with heavy traffic, Izmir had a lot more open space along the shoreline. The whole city was criss-crossed by wide boulevards and dotted with parks.

We arrived at the meeting point in the quarter of Karşıaka around noon. We had agreed to meet Sencer, our WarmShowers host, in a park along the Mediterranean. He picked us up with his bike and led us through busy shopping and chomping miles to his apartment. The flat was surprisingly big for someone living on his own. With its modern furniture it resembled a centrefold from an Ikea catalog. The building had no lift but fortunately he lived on the first floor.

We talked for a while and had a beer on his balcony before we tore off our stinking clothes and washed away the muck that stuck to us. Sencer led us to a small road-snack and ordered a plate of Midye dolması – grilled mussels filled with rice – and Kokoreç – sheep intestines wrapped around a skewer that is roasted and cut into small pieces like a Döner before it is stuffed into a sliced Turkish bread. He also ordered black carrot juice. The name sounded appalling, chiefly because I don’t like raw carrots, but it turned out to be quite delicious and even a bit spicy.

With our stomachs appeased we relaxed in a park near the shoreline with a few beers before Sencer took us aboard a ferry to the opposite site of the bay. Instead of going around the perimeter of the bay by bus or car, crossing by ferryboat was not even quicker but also more relaxing. From the vessel we had some nice views of the city over which the sun had set a few minutes before. Sencer had free tickets for a puppet show at the theatre but there was still enough time before the performance to guide us to some of the sights of Izmir.

Right next to the pier was a large, cobblestoned square that contained Konak Camisi (Cami means mosque), allegedly the smallest mosque of Turkey. Close by was the famous clock tower of Izmir, one of the city’s landmarks. I have to admit that the picture I had painted of the tower in my mind’s eye was far more imposing and massive than reality; but at night, with colored floodlights illuminating the phallus-like structure, it was a beautiful sight nonetheless. From there he guided us through parts of the market district and the transvestite mile where heavily made up men, women, androgynies, you name it, lined the curbstones.

On our way to the theatre Sencer told us about yesterday’s entertaining performance by a Canadian guy which he had considered excellent. He had also invited his cousin and a friend to the show who were all waiting for the spectacle to begin.


Taking photos was strictly forbidden during the show so you cannot see what the stage looked like but I’ll try to describe of what happened. The play was written and enacted by a young Greek female artist. The stage was empty, except for a table in its center and an armchair at the left edge. On the table sat a bowl covered with a piece of cloth. A life-size puppet emerged from the shadows. It’s arms, legs and trunk attached to the puppeteer via thin wires. He was dressed in black which rendered him almost invisible. Not a single word was spoken for the entire duration of the play.

The puppet was an old woman dressed in an apron. She took a lump of dough from the bowl, examined it, assessed it and, sighing disappointedly, threw it away. She started to knead a new dough from some water and flour and put the mass in the bowl to let it rest for a while. Then she waited, first reclining in the armchair, then dancing to a short repetitive ten second loop of Greek folk music with a broom in her hand.

When she deemed the dough had rested long enough she judged it again. She started toying around with the clump, molding earrings, airplanes and some other senseless objects from it before she eventually knead it into the form of an infant. She wrapped the brat in a cloth and rocked it in her arms, visibly content with what her hands had produced. Then she left the stage.

The lights were turned on, the audience applauded and Sencer, without hesitating even for the blink of an eye, turned towards us and said: “I am SO sorry!” Apparently the deeper meaning of the show escaped him as well. Just like his cousin and friend who began to mock him for at least fifteen minutes after we had left the theatre. As for myself; the only thing I was sure of was, that I wouldn’t go to any more puppet shows in the near future.

The Bike Bar

Our next stop was a bar for cyclists. Sencer had recently grown fond of riding his bike and explained that Izmir has become the Turkish cycling capital in the last few years. There were many groups and gatherings for race cyclists as well as mountain bikers who frequently rode together or met in certain bars to talk and relax. After half an hour of walking along the shoreline, a park and the sea to our left and a never-ending string of bars and restaurants to our right, we stood in front of the bar. I am not a big fan of any kind of subculture but I was surprised that not once did anybody ask me about the bike I rode, my training schedule or my favourite racing cyclist.

In the back of the bar a band was playing cover songs by R.E.M., Led Zeppelin, and Nirvana while we indulged in some fermented hop juice and distilled grain. We danced (if one is willing to consider the awkward twitches of my lanky two meter body as dancing), we had fun and at one in the morning we had to leave to catch the last train back home. On our way back a young Turk spilled the contents of his stomach on the floor of the car just seconds before getting off the train. Sencer was disgusted and apologized several times for the uncivilised behaviour of his fellow Ottoman. I told him about the running gag that haunted us when we rode through Menemen, pronouncing the name of the city just like the Muppet Show song: Menemene …. di diiiii di di di. Back home, we had one last beer on his balcony before snuggling into our cozy bed and falling into a deep slumber.

Leaving Izmir

On our second day in Izmir we didn’t leave the flat and tried to move as little as possible. I worked on radwild from noon till six in morning, only taking a break once to prepare dinner and Mia either read or slept. On Monday we had breakfast together. Sencer had bought Boyoz with Beyaz Peynir, a kind of greasy puff pastry filled with white cheese, and Simit (palm sized dough curls, slimmer than a doughnut and covered with sesame seeds), which are called Gevrek in Izmir. Then we left the city that turned out to be so very different from Istanbul and yet so similar.

Our track led us through the centre of Izmir, passing the train station where we boarded our ride home yesterday evening, the cargo seaport with its towers made from containers, ready to be shipped across the Mediterranean until we had left the core area of the city an hour later. The road went on along shop after shop, mall after mall, with the latest trends in fashion, cars and furniture on display. Zara, Decathlon, Bauhaus. Western capitalism was clearly encroaching upon Turkey’s retail markets.

We continued South, pedaling through mostly flat farmland until we reached Tahtalı Reservoir. We had planned to camp next to the reservoir but when we found a nice spot there were two Turkish farmers who insisted that we sleep in their greenhouse as it would protect us from the wind and rain. It wasn’t raining and it didn’t look like rain neither but to avoid a lengthy and onerous argument as to why we preferred to camp closer to the lake, we pitched our tent inside the huge greenhouse. They gave us the leftovers of their meal – some bread, cheese, and salad – and some tomatoes and fruit which they had grown themselves. Later we drank several cups of home-made wine together.

When our pasta was ready I added a few drops of our insanely hot chili sauce and began to eat. The oldest of the farmers wanted to try the sauce and despite my warnings as to its very intense heat level, he took way to much. His head flushed, he started to frantically chew a piece of bread and gulp down water while panting with watery eyes. Now, his friend, Ismael, didn’t want to miss the opportunity to show that he was capable of ingesting the sauce without breaking a sweat. He, too, put far too much on his plate and claimed that it wasn’t hot at all. Immediately, with a deadpan expression on his face, he stuffed some bread in his mouth and, about a minute later, explained that he had to go home now. They both left.

Death of a Petrol Pump

When I tried to heat some water in the morning I noticed that the screw which regulates the flow of petrol into the MSR Whisperlite stove had given up the ghost. It had always been a bit hard to turn. It seemed that I had been tightening the screw too much all the time. Because the thread on the screw was made from metal while its counterpart in the pump was mere plastic it was only a matter of time until the metal would screw up the plastic (pun intended). The stove still worked and now, three months later, as I am translating this article, I got used to starting and stopping the stove by turning the screw while pushing hard or pulling on it at the same time. It was a digital stove now – either off or inferno mode – but it had been hard to regulate the flame before I broke it anyway. In the long run I’d have to buy a new pump. The Whisperlite is a really neat stove except for this one design flaw. Please, dear MSR, change the design of the screw!

My Spokes Make Cracking Sounds

Another novelty this morning was the noise which the spokes of my rear wheel made. They sometimes gave a weird cracking sound with each turn of the wheel. This happened only in certain gears but I just couldn’t pinpoint where the sound was coming from. I was a novice at building wheels and my rear wheel was the first one I had ever made so I still was a bit sceptical if it would last the whole tour. It had endured the bumpy road to Omalo in Georgia the year before without any complaints but still I wasn’t sure.

I checked the tension of the spokes and tightened them all by a quarter of a turn so they would have enough tension to carry the weight of my luggage. But to no avail. They still cracked. A while later, Mia discovered the source of the noise: The lose end of the shifting cable was bent inwards, very close to the wheel, and in certain gears it touched one of the spokes. I bent it back and the noise was gone. Much ado about nothing.

We had left the Mediterranean, our southbound trajectory had come to an end, and the course was set due east, heading towards Pamukkale. Read about the White Castle and the Sun City in the next article.
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