Istanbul – Cigarettes and Minarets

This place has something of a gravitational pull I haven’t experienced in other cities. I’ve finally left, and it took several days of “I’m leaving tomorrow” until it actually happened. Since I’ve said little, and written even less, I’ll recount my Istanbul incidents in vague chronological order.

A month ago, I had arrived in Thessaloniki. I found fellow by the name of Apostolos to stay with. I don’t think I’ve ever encountered someone as generous and kind.
Jeremie, Apostolos, and Vassiliki

Despite being in the midst of his final exams (vet school), he was able to spend time with me. He even went so far as to cook for me, and showed me around the city. We went for a very pleasant ride along the sea in Thessaloniki.
Apostolos and I ride

I even hung out with Apostolos and his friends at the university, getting my free lunch at the cafeteria. Yes. Free lunches do exist.
Free lunch

I hung out in Thessaloniki longer than expected, anticipating the arrival of the infamous Pako Serrano. We had been talking for several weeks, but we were never in the same place at the same time. When he showed up, we decided to ride to Istanbul together.
The infamous Pako

Pako has blog too. He takes an awful lot of pretty photos with his DSLR. Check them out.

It turned out that the 650km ride from Thessaloniki to Istanbul was one of the more difficult stretches. It was cold (5C-10C), and the wind was against us. Yet, there were highlights.

Pakos fur hat was one of them.
Pako's fur hat
He made some use of it in the cold 😉

We found a nice thermal spa near Eleftheres, and camped near it for a night.
Eleftheres thermal
This abandoned thermal was 13km from the nearest town. I decided with such a nice thermal, wine was required. I rode to the convenience store and back for… wine. Really, it wasn’t even good wine, but at least I got 5 liters of it 😉

It was just as warm as the one at Thermopylaes, and there wasn’t a soul around. The place had once been a resort, but was now left abandoned. Even the surrounding forest was a little bit eerie.
Eleftheres forest

There was also a neat monastery, built in the middle of a lake.
Orthodox Church

Somewhere on a long stretch of uninteresting road, I clocked another milestone. Dooo wooop!
Yep.  Killing it.

Eventually, we made it to the border. I’d been nervous about this for a while, as I’d now significantly overstayed my Shengen visa. (5 months). The border guard looked a little surprised, looking first at me, and then at my passport. He simply smiled and handed it back. I guess they don’t see too many people crossing the border in the dead of winter on bicycles.

To turkey!

Now in Turkey, I’m excited to be making my way east. We took the main road into Istanbul through Kesan. It wasn’t terribly busy, but the headwind and the rolling hills made it hard work. The morning we left Tekirdag, we ended up hitching with a lorry driver.

Hitching a ride

I was working my way up a big hill, granny gearing it at about 10km/hr. A truck passes me, scarcely doing 15. I give him the first pump, and he does the same. At the top of the hill, he stops and begins speaking in Turkish to me. I speak no Turkish. Eventually, I clue in, he’s offering us a ride into the city. I hadn’t planned on hitching, as the cycle purist in me just wants to ride the whole distance. The rain and 30km/hr headwind made it easy to twist my arm. We throw the bikes in the back, and hop in the front with him. There’s limited conversation, as he doesn’t speak english, and we turkish. I do however, have my turkish phrase book out. He seems to find it of interest and has a peek, as we’re careening down the highway. We stop for a chai at a small truck stop. He pops in coin in the vibrating chair in the corner, and tells Pako to sit in it. Pure gold.
Pako's vibrating chair

As we drive into Istanbul, we stop for gas at what I can only assume is his friends place. It wasn’t even as gas station, just a lot with some junk lying around. He points to the charred carcass of an old truck. He explains that he had a little “kaza”, and his old truck burnt down. Right. Given that he was reading, pointing at places on his map, and multitasking away as we drove down the road, it makes sense that he’d have a little kaza.

We continue into the city, having worked out that he’s carrying a load of wheat, is going to the port and intends to drop us off on the freeway. I check the map, and there’s really no other road. There’s no shoulder, and it’s still pouring rain. Despite this, it was still entertaining to see Turks give us the thumbs up as they passed us. Pretty sure we were the last thing they expected to see on the freeway. It was quite possibly the most terrifying ride of my trip yet.

Turkish truck driver

Despite the fact we had a lift into the city, things just didn’t go smoothly. Between the two of us, we got four flat tires, and neither of us had a working pump. Dealing with it in the pouring rain kind of drains your energy.

Arriving in Osmanby, we ended up staying with Zanib and Matt. She’s Moroccan, and he’s Canadian. Matt is from Edmonton, and we eventually formed what can only be known as team Alberta (Istanbul edition). It was a nice feeling to shoot the breeze about all things Canadian, mostly uninteresting to the rest of the world 🙂

We stayed at the flat they were renting. The owner, off with his newly wed wasn’t around. The flat was typically full of foreign travelers, with a very liberal open door policy. Other guests from Germany, the Ukraine, Spain, and Morocco made an appearance.

The flat is nicely decorated, as guests make a habit of drawing on the walls.
Barains Flat

Barains Flat

Barains Flat

The flat also has a policy of communal cooking. Eggfast is a staple, as a flat of 40 eggs is sold for something like 5 Lira, or 3 dollars. All of our meals were delicious.

We eat well here.

The arrival in Istanbul couldn’t have been more perfectly timed. It then rained for a week, and was followed by snow. This was tempered by my loving little sister visiting me for the second time on this trip.

My sister and I

It’s amazing when she shows up. She cooks, she drinks, she parties. Many a good night was had in her presence. She even brought us duty free booze!

The rest of my stay in Istanbul was not terribly eventful. I only managed to ride my bike around the city twice, as it’s kind of a nerve racking city to ride in. In the three weeks I was there, I believe I saw only a handful of cyclists. Drivers and pedestrians are not used to them, making it all the more stressful. Pretty much, I spent the rest of my time smoking, drinking, and eating. I gained weight!

Such entertaining activities as…

mustache parties we never actually made it to:
Moustache pre-party

how many drunk foreigners you can fit in a taxi:
6 foreigners in a cab, drunk.

spastic dance moves:
Bad dance moves

I think I had enough of the drink to last me a good long time. When I wasn’t in party mode, I was kept busy repairing and getting ready for the next leg of the trip. I had holes to patch in everything, a computer to fix, and a visa to acquire. The holes came from my ineptitude peeing in the middle of the night, walking around in cleated cycle shoes. The computer hard drive had begun to fail. Bad sectors. So many bad irreparable sectors. Not surprisingly, it likely had something to do with 13,000km of bouncing around in my pannier. I wasn’t so sure about the visa either, as I’d gotten conflicting information from multiple people. I wanted to try in Istanbul, so that I wouldn’t risk having to wait for ten days in Erzurum, or Ankara. After two weeks, I received it with a lot less difficulty than I had been anticipating.

I’m now on the road heading south again, for a tour around Anatolia. So far, it’s been quite amazing. Turkey is a brilliant place.

As usual, I’ve posted all of my photos to flickr.