The First 50km of the Çelebi Trail

/ By Sean

If you had a mind to do it, you could find a place to comfortably camp in Turkey 12 months of the year. Camping in any form (and most outdoor hobbies) is rare in this country. However, there are a few beautiful long-distance hiking trails that have been marked out in recent years.

I heard about the Evliya Çelebi Way (ECW) my first year living in Istanbul. I’d been looking for an excuse to spend a couple days on the trail for years. Couple that with the fact that I had also had my eye on İznik since before we moved here and you’ve got yourself a plan! This June, with our move to Antalya quickly approaching, I finally made the decision to travel the first 55km of ECW. My friend Josh (not the photographer you’re used to) joined me at the last minute.

Backpack in the prairie grass at our campsite

Getting to the trail head from Istanbul was quite simple and cheap. Sunday we quickly scraped together the gear and food we needed and Monday morning at 8am we were on a ferry from Yenikapı, Istanbul to Yalova. From there we jumped on a minibus to the nearby township of Altınova. The actual trailhead is north in a little place called Hersek, but rather than head up that way only to double back we started hiking from where the minibus dropped us off in Altınova. In total, we only spent 38.50TL per person to get there.

The day before we left I had scoured other blogs and websites looking for detailed instructions for how to find and navigate the trail without the official guidebook. I was somewhat successful (as you will see) but it’s not something I would do again. Hold all your questions for the end; I promise to get to lessons learned.

After only a few minutes we left town behind. That region of the country is full of small farms and orchards. Cobbled, small town Turkish streets gave way to semi-paved rural roads as we watched families collect apricots and cherries from their trees. We were also surprised to pass a number of smaller apartment complexes and properties that had been abandoned but still had numerous fruit trees growing untended on them. It would have been perfect foraging if we had waited a week or two.

One of the many fields we passed near Iznik around sunset
One of the many fields we passed near Iznik around sunset on the first day

After about 90 minutes we started to descend into a network of brilliant green valleys. We were taking back roads from the south-eastern edge of Altınova, heading roughly south-west toward the village of Soğuksu/Ayazma (the name on the sign coming into town was Ayazma, but the name on the map was Soğuksu.) Josh stopped in a small grocer to buy some water and I made friends with a mangy dog we eventually named Aaron. I wouldn’t mention that detail except that he joined our party and stayed faithful to us for the next 18km.

On the other side of town we came to a fork in the road and opted to head east, which seemed like the way the official trail was supposed to go. After a quick lunch break we continued on pavement as the landscape evolved again to tall rocky cliffs and wilder forest. This segment of the hike was more lush, but we also started getting passed by large dump trucks carrying dusty loads. The road itself would have been better traveled on bike at that point.

About an hour and a half later we found our first and only sign indicating we actually were on the official ECW! Already very sweaty and a bit doubtful, seeing it totter there was a major victory. It was pointing in two directions, marking out a choice of landmarks we could visit. Çobankalesi (The Shepherd’s Fortress) is an abandoned keep on a hill a kilometre or so off the trail. That sounded interesting, but the sign for Bağdat Restaurant seemed much more promising. If it was a signed way-point, maybe the proprietor could tell us more about the trail and confirm our route.

So we struck off in the direction the sign indicated we could find the restaurant. In a classic “pride comes before the fall” moment, 500 meters later we found a sign for the restaurant pointing in the opposite direction as the trail marker. I checked Google maps and confirmed that we had indeed gone the wrong way. We double back and twisted the wobbly signpost back into its original position. The good news is that we got a look at the ruins of Çobankalesi on the way back.

Back on our original trail and pointed in the right direction to find the restaurant, we met a large group of Turkish cyclists on the road. I flagged one down and asked about ECW, but they didn’t know about it either. They did, however, confirm that we would eventually come to Nicaea if we continued on this road.

A few minutes later we passed our first provincial boundary marker and entered into Kocaeli. Our path rose and fell and wound along a stony river at the bottom of the valley. Another half an hour took us to the Bağdat Restaurant and Resort located in the middle of nowhere. (Honestly, I’m not sure who patronizes that large, surprisingly well developed resort.) While we rested there and drank some tea we certainly didn’t see any other customers. It is, however, very well looked after and the staff were excellent. There’s a cool, clean stream that runs along the edge of the property and tons of shade. It was the ideal rest stop for sweaty hikers.

Although the manager didn’t know much about ECW and wasn’t selling the guidebook, he did confirm that the road that the resort was built on was a part of the original route Çelebi had taken hundreds of years ago. For camping he recommended a spot that overlooked İznik Gölü (Nicaea Lake). We reckoned we had covered at least half of the 25km we planned for the first day. He broke our hearts when he said there were still 18km to go before the plateau and that we had only actually covered 9 or 10.

Josh was starting to limp by this point (long hikes can be hard on his 6’7” frame) and the sun had gotten very hot. I was skeptical that we had only come that far, but thought he would know best since he was from the area. We had rejected two rides already, offered by locals who chuckled that we would haul our backpacks on this long walk for fun. We decided that if another person offered us a ride we’ll hitch as far as the plateau.

As we walked another few kilometres, the landscape changed from forest and valley to flat, grassy plains. Though we were still a long way from İznik, we started to get our first glimpses of the region’s famous olive orchards. Here and there, we saw the narrow silver leaves of olive trees and the wild of the forest gave way to the geometrical symmetry of planted crops.

Eventually, our chance came to grab a ride. A car pulled over and we hopped in. Once inside we waved goodbye to Aaron the Stray Dog and got to know Muhammad. It was a beautiful coincidence that he decided to take the scenic route home that day and came across us. As we worked through the small talk of getting to know a new Turkish friend, Mohammad casually explained us that he is a quantum physicist that makes lasers for the military. He had out attention after that. “What’s your job like? Tell us some stories.” Boring, was all he said. He didn’t particularly love it, but he was a physicist and had to make money some how. True enough.

We the ride lasted a few minutes. The parkland we were walking through when he picked us up quickly gave way to a pastoral region with flocks of sheep and goats and the occasional herd of cattle. There were more villages and towns than the previous sections of the trail, too. Without question, the distance from right before the village of Valideköprü to our vista on the north side of Nicaea Lake was the most varied and interesting we traveled through. If I were to do the hike again with the same number of kilometres in vehicle and walking, I would certainly chose to walk the part we drove and drive some of what we walked.

The view from the plateau was everything the staff at Bağdat Restaurant promised it would be. It was in the heart of olive country. We looked down to the massive lake and the villages stacked along the shore from 2km above the town of Boyalıca.

The view above Iznik
Supper with Josh on the plateau

We found a place on the edge of an olive grove to set up my hammock tent and have supper. Josh planned to sleep under the stars on a camping mat and small tarp. It was buggy, arid ground made up of gravel and red sand. The swarms of huge ants and large spider webs running along the ground made both of us a little skeptical about Josh sleeping on the ground overnight, but he was determined (at that point) to tough it out. An hour later, as we watched the sun finally set, nature dealt a deathblow to the sleeping-on-the-bare-ground plan. He glanced to his side of our idyllic perch and spotted a 1-metre long fleshly shed snakeskin.

Now, I would rather snakes and lizards than bugs and spiders. But Josh was put off by the skin. He knew he’d be the only warm place to snuggle up for all sorts of critters once the sun went down, while I swung soundly in my hammock. There was nothing to do but break camp.

The walk down to the village in the twilight was quick and calm. We picked ripe cherries and enjoyed the cool evening air. There was no hotel in the Boyalıca, but we hopped on a minibus going to Nicaea for only 4.50TL each and checked in to a small room in Aydo Oteli before 9pm. Our hitchhiking and minibus ride totaled about half the overall distance. We covered the full 55km of our planned walk in a single day.

We had a sweaty but deep sleep (no air conditioning in that hotel) and decided to tour the town the next day. You can read more about the city itself right here. We climbed ancient walls, checked out the town’s famous tile work, visited a church-turned mosque that hosted one of Christianity’s Ecumenical Councils, ate some döner, and went for a swim. In the mid afternoon we found a seat on a minibus heading back to Yalova for only 15TL a person and dozed as we took the not-as-scenic road back to where we started. We were home in Istanbul for supper.

Icons in the mosque church in Iznik.
The last remnants of icons in the Nicene Church of Hagia Sophia (yeah, same name) which is now a mosque.

I went to bed the next night very satisfied with out trip despite the fact we had to use vehicles for some of it and ended up in a hotel. I loved getting out of the city into such a wide variety of natural settings and visiting a city I had pined to go to for almost 10 years.

SOME ADVICE

If you want to get a taste of the Evliya Çelebi Way, don’t miss the opportunity because of the difficulty of travel or the expense. This was a very cheap trip and the transit was fast and frequent.

I highly recommend getting the guidebook. I didn’t think we needed it because we were only doing about 50km of several hundred. However, there is no distinct trail and the markers are few and unreliable. Locals will not be able to help you unless you already know where you’re going.

Google wasn’t enough and Google Maps wasn’t up to date for this region. For those for you who are savvy to orienteering, find a topographic map before you set out.

You could camp this trail, but if you are more interested in the hiking aspect you could buy food and lodging along the way. There’s no need to haul big packs over that distance unless you love the load.

1s & 0s by knowler