Our location as of Oct 1st: Trabzon, Turkey
Proposed alternative route:
With our new route up through Georgia and Azerbaijan pencilled into Google Maps, we realised that our ride through Turkey along the Black Sea was suddenly very close to its end. By heading north from Trabzon we are cutting out about 600km from our planned Turkish mileage (the would-be ride to the Iranian border). But these are not kilometres ‘saved’, as we will probably need to add on 800km in Uzbekistan as we enter from its very northern tip: we’ll traverse its largest desert, instead of crossing smoothly into Bukhara from Turkmenistan. The visa dates have been recalculated and still work – just. If that isn’t 100% clear to read then it is because it is still not 100% worked out!! We will keep you posted. But for the meantime, to give our visa-weary heads a rest we decided to go for a Turkish bath.
You might wonder why we hadn’t tried one before Trabzon. The answer is quite simple: from what I’d heard, Turkish baths (called hamams) had to come with Turkish massages to be considered the full experience. Now I use the word ‘massage’ here in the loosest sense of the word, as I’d always thought the idea of a massage was for muscle relaxation. Not in Turkey apparently, where massages are more violent than soothing. Getting beaten down by a burly Turkish man on a stone table had not yet made it to the top of our apres-cycling shortlist. But here we were, on a rest day in Trabzon, with opportunities and excuses running out. We would take on the burly men.
The place was unassuming but centrally located – we were led to the door by a policeman we’d asked in the main square. The first thing to notice was that women had a separate entrance, which going by the sign at the front (men’s) entrance was around the side, left and left again in a little alley out of the way. This segregation was good news for us on this occasion. Public interaction with the opposite sex had been kept very straightforward since the start of eastern Europe, so the sight of women in any state of undress at this point might have been too much for both of us. Quietly thankful this time for Turkey’s conservatism, we left our copper and entered.
A Turkish bath happens in a series of rooms. The entrance turned into a large octagonal lounging area with stairs on either side leading up to a banistered balcony which ran along the eight walls of the room. Off this banistered walkway there were dimly lit private changing rooms, where we were encouraged to get undressed and return to the lounging area. Just a small towel provided to cover essentials. A door led from the lounging area to the first ‘wet’ area, where taps and basin lined the walls in alcoves, and old men seemed to be splashing about with very little purpose. I’d assumed that everyone would be stark naked (hence the need for a women’s area), but was to be disappointed. Although the sloshing of water over these tiny towels allowed for a good amount of flashing, it was generally accepted that privates were to be kept private and towels hastily replaced if they made a bid for freedom. So we sloshed and flashed in order to fit in, all the time thinking a swimming pool might have been a more effective way of cleaning ourselves. Then a skinny man with comically bushy eyebrows led us further into the complex to a sauna. We immediately became the topic of conversation as the only two foreigners baking in the room full of Turkish old men. More sloshing. And finally, just as we thought we’d got away with it, Eyebrows pointed to the stone table.
This was like no massage I’d ever had. It started with more sloshing of course, in case we hadn’t sloshed enough in the wet room. Then we were scrubbed down with a sort of wet, scratchy oven glove, which was quite pleasant. Little black lumps started appearing all over my body (worrying), which turned out to be small balls of my outer layer of skin (very worrying).
Eyebrows looked scathingly at the bits of my skin he’d just peeled off, as if there was too much of it, or as if it was far dirtier than a usual Turkish man’s. This wasn’t any more reassuring. More vigorous sloshing and my skin balls were spread over the hamam floor. After that my fresh outer layer of skin was given a full soap down, which it enjoyed, followed by a pummelling, which it did not. It was as if Eyebrows’ aim had been to carefully expose the tender new skin and then inflict maximum punishment. A bit like being gently beaten up except that I couldn’t get up off the stone table to do anything about it. Once I winced audibly (as he hammered his fingertips into the side of my tired quad muscle), which produced a stifled chuckle from my Turkish sadist. Foreigner clearly can’t handle it, he must have been thinking. I shut up from then on not to give Eyebrows further satisfaction. After the beating, one last sloshing session and into the sauna for a quick round two. The Turkish men in there found it hilarious that my body was now glowing an embarrassed and sore pink! One last slosh, and back to the lounging area.
Finally it was time for the relaxing part of the experience, as we were handed different coloured towels to drape over ourselves. We lounged gloriously with a cay each in our fresh layer of skin, body oils and dirt shed and discarded on the wet area floor. I ran my finger across my forehead and it actually squeaked, an unprecedented feeling of cleanliness for this expedition! The muscles, however, had decided to pack up following their beating – in particular my quads, which after the last three months must be wondering what they have done to deserve this treatment. We practically crawled up the stairs on all fours to get changed again, which (as you can imagine) moved the quietly sneering regulars to open laughter as we left! So a big thumbs up to the sloshing and soaping, and of course the lounging – but perhaps less enthusiastic about the flagellation. As we left Trabzon for Georgia the next day, my quads reminded me that tea and baklava were probably safer cultural ‘experiences’.
We hope that you’re enjoying reading about our expedition! Thanks very much to all those who have already donated. For those who haven’t yet, please do follow this link and donate a couple of quid to Prostate Cancer UK – it makes a massive difference to us on the road, and an even greater one to men back home with this nasty type of cancer. Thanks so much! And get keen for the next instalment from Lobby!