September 29, 2011
At the University of California at Santa Barbara, where I went to college, there is a small, murky lagoon connected by a small channel to the Pacific Ocean. A resident biologist in the marine lab where I worked once told me that it takes 11 days for every last bit of water in the Campus Lagoon to cycle through the system.
In the Black Sea, the same process may take 2500 years, give or take. And so we can assume that molecules last borne by Caspian tigers, Mark Twain, Suleiman the Magnificent and Alexander the Great are still waiting for their day to exit the Black Sea, parade past Istanbul and enter the Marmara (and maybe someday the Campus Lagoon). Not that the Bosporus Strait isn’t doing its best to exchange new water for the old. Its currents move at four miles per hour and amount to a flow rate of 22,000 cubic meters per second. If the Bosporus were a river, it would be the sixth largest on Earth.
Water in the Black Sea’s northern reaches gets as cold as seawater can get—31 degrees Fahrenheit—and as warm as the 80s in summer. Its salinity is about half that of the world’s oceans, running 17 to 18 parts per thousand, due to the large influx of river water. The Sea of Azov, the Ukrainian inlet on the northern coast of the Black, runs about 11 parts per thousand.
All fascinating, but I could tolerate the Black Sea coast for only three days. Throngs of visitors come clamoring for the place and spill onto the beach and pose exuberantly under umbrellas and wrestle with colorful inflatable toys in the brown waves. I was uninspired by the traffic, the wind, the waterfront cafés and their junky dance music and the long weary miles of sand.
So at Alapli, I move inland on the road for Duzce, the next large town. I sleep in a hazelnut grove six miles uphill and resume biking at dawn. Fifteen miles later, in Yigilca, I ask several men at a village café if there is a small mountain road that cuts directly south to the city of Bolu, bypassing Duzce. (My terrible map shows only main highways.) At first the men advise me to take the main road. “It is the best way,” one tells me smartly. But actually it’s the worst way, and I manage to make it clear that I want to follow a peaceful forest route with no traffic, over the Bolu mountains. At last, the men concede that such a road exists and they describe the turnoff seven kilometers further. I find it without a hitch, and the asphalt becomes gravel. It’s all uphill, and that familiar feeling of exhilaration with altitude returns. Dry scrub becomes chestnut trees which eventually become pines. It’s cool and moist here, and shaggy mane mushrooms sprout from the moss. I catch a whiff of something rancid on the breeze and around the bend find a frothing, festering corpse of a wild pig weighing at least 200 pounds, sprawled and swollen in the road. I suspect it’s been shot and left to waste, as many people here tote guns but don’t eat pork.
Evening comes. I must be 20 miles from Bolu and I’ve brought nothing to eat. Over the pass, the Koroglu Mountains are purple beneath the red sky. Pine groves alternate with open green meadows, and there’s not a soul around. I would love to unwind up here with some cheese, figs, and a beer in my sleeping bag, but I have no food. Every mile that I descend hurts as the country passes, and my pursuit of a grocery market draws me all the way, sadly, to the valley floor, across the freeway, into the big and busy Bolu. It’s dark when I arrive, and I get a hotel room for a record low price of 10 lira.
It’s a roach pad here, with a moldy sink and no shower in the building. I crash on a lumpy mattress as a man somewhere in the labyrinth of halls coughs violently for an hour. I study my map and set my sights on the mountainous wilderness to the south, and the whole of interior Turkey awaits.
Sign up for our free email newsletter and receive the best stories from Smithsonian.com each week.