(31) Turkish delights
Wednesday 24th October
We slept well and woke to a dry tent. We ate the last of our bread and chocolate spread for breakfast – we had forgotten to buy milk for our cereal as chocolate was higher up the list. We rode the 3 miles to the border – the narrow road was terrible with lots of pot holes and bad rough patches. We left Bulgaria and crossed through border control into Turkey – the French guys found it funny that we had to pay £10 each for a visa and they could enter Turkey for free – haha. We had enjoyed Bulgaria but found it a lot hillier then we had expected. Being at the end of the holiday season there was hardly anyone around but the people we did meet were always friendly.
We were now in country number 10 and pleased to be in Turkey as it was always somewhere Tim had wanted to visit.
We rode about 10 miles and stopped for an early lunch. We had a great view of the road ahead – it was a new road which meant no pot holes or bumps and a very wide hard shoulder – our idea of heaven. We had a leisurely lunch using up the pasta and rice that was in our food bag then headed on, enjoying the great road which undulated its way in the direction of Istanbul.
As we approached the town of Kerklareli we were excited to see the minarets from the mosques piercing the horizon. We knew this would be a familiar sight for a long while to come. From the outside it looked a small town and as we continued on the quiet road we arrived into a bustling centre and were greeted by the call of the Muezzin for prayers. It felt such a cultural difference from Bulgaria and we grinned at each other as we cycled through the busy streets. We asked some people where we could find a supermarket and headed to it. Sharon and Oscar spent an hour in there and came out looking pleased with themselves as they had spent time trying the local turkish delight known as Lokum. Tim and Alain entertained themselves by chatting to locals and even met a guy from Birmingham who had married a Turkish lady he had met on the Internet. Because of the wait they were forced to return again and again to a promotional stall that was giving away samples of different cooked meats. Each time the member of staff changed they went back for more demostrating a survival skill they had developed while waiting for Sharon to do the shopping : )
We headed out of town and rode for about 10 miles before spotting a small wood on the brow of a hill. It looked like a perfect camp spot. Needing water we headed across the road to an army base. We arrived at the main entrance where the chief guard refused to help – we think he was concerned about the security risk of smelly cyclists. Tim commented that he thought they must have confused him with James Bond in lycra…
Turning round we spotted some soldiers coming out of a hut and approached them. They filled not only all our water bottles but also brought out 2 bottles of mineral water for us. Saying our thanks we headed off into the woodland we had seen earlier and found a flat spot which had a sandy clay surface and was wet from the previous rain. It was adequate for camping though and we couldn’t be seen from the road. We gathered timber for a fire and Sharon made a start on dinner – we were having ‘camp’ lasagne. It was a tricky meal to do but the pasta was cooked beforehand (normal not sheet pasta) and then each layer was put into each bowl, layering mince and white sauce. It was delicious and a great treat.
Sitting by the fire, full of lasagne knowing we had chocolate pudding and Turkish delight for afters, we were in Turkish heaven : ) and went to bed with full bellies.
We heard something outside in the night and woke with a start. Tim popped his head out of the tent to be greeted by a dog who was pulling our rubbish bag apart – despite the fact that we thought we’d put it out of reach. He scared it away and we settled back down to sleep.
Thursday 25th October
We woke around 8am to a bright morning and packed away a muddy and wet tent. We sat down for breakfast and the French guys got up and spotted some fresh foot prints next to their tent. A person had clearly come down to have a look during the night as the footprints stopped and turned around and went back towards the road.
We got on the road and cycled to the town of Vize where we spotted a coffee shop with wifi. We had our first Turkish coffee and sat outside eating our home made sandwiches. We caught up on emails and booked a hostel in Istanbul, which made us feel better as we had a point of reference to aim for.
We rode out of town picking up supplies on the way. By this point it was getting late in the day and we needed to find somewhere to camp. After a while we spotted some woodland ahead. A few hundred metres before, the French guys stopped and suggested we ask at a restaurant if we could camp in their large garden. We followed them to the entrance and a welcoming man greeted us. We asked him if we could camp and he beckoned us into his restaurant. We explained that we didn’t want to eat as we had food with us but he invited us in anyway and showed us to a unlaid table. His daughter and son came over to chat to us and we used Google translator to aid the conversation. Before long Burak his son who was also the chef said that he would like to cook for us as their guests. We were so excited and Oscar was shown to the kitchen to help! We were served coffee and before long hot dishes of delicious Turkish food started to come out of the kitchen. Oscar appeared looking hungry and we sat down together to enjoy dinner.
We spent the evening chatting and they kept bringing us beer on the house. After a while they told us they were concerned about us camping as it was too cold and showed us to an out building with 2 bedrooms and a bathroom. By 2am it was clearly bedtime and we slept well after such amazing hospitality.
Friday 26th October
The family had invited us for breakfast at the restaurant at 10am but Tim woke earlier concerned about the mounting list of things we had to do when we would get to Isanbul. He managed to backup all of the photos to the hard drive and snoozed at the same time. We got up about 9.30 and went in for breakfast and were fed a delicious spread of salad, omlette, warm bread and olives.
We headed off about midday into bright sunshine – we covered 25 miles before stopping for a coke as Tim was stuggling as he was feeling weak and suffering with stomach cramps (drinking coke is a well known cure for nasties in your stomach).
We headed on and stopped for lunch in a shaded park. We decided to have our cereal for lunch. The French guys had coco pops and we had coco flops (as we named them). They were actually more expensive than coco pops but the guys had taken the last bag and we had to endure the local brand : ( Tim headed on still feeling tired as he wanted to potter along. We caught him up after a while and found him looking pleased with himself next to a stall that sold honey. He had managed to negotiate a good price while he waited. As we were leaving we spotted 2 cycle tourists coming the other way. One was a guy from England who had been cycling in Sinai, Israel, Jordan and Turkey and was heading back to Manchester. The other guy was from China and had cycled from there and was flying to South America from Istanbul. We chatted for a while before heading on.
We rode into a town to get dinner and water and found one of many springs where we could fill our water bag and bottles. We pottered around visiting the local bakery and fruit and veg stall. The French guys told one stall holder that we were their parents and they believed them – cheeky monkeys. We headed on out of the town and soon found a fantastic camp spot away from the road. There was a large flat grassy area and 2 picnic benches for us to cook. We were even next to a stream – it was perfect. As Tim pitched the tent a young timid dog set up camp in the west wing of our tent. He was soon ushered out and settled down outside as close to our tent as possible. We cooked dinner and chatted around a camp fire.
Saturday 27th October
We woke in our camp spot with the dog curled up against the tent.We had breakfast and packed everything away. As Tim was packing up the tent the young dog kept trying to climb in it. He finally gave in and resorted to making his home in the french guys tent to their annoyance.
With the sun shining we joined the highway and enjoyed the good road even though in places it was hard going with regular steep climbs. We stopped in a town about 25 miles away from the centre of Istanbul to get lunch, we knew we would need the energy to get through the busy city.
As we headed on, the road got busier with a few dodgy intersections to cross we knew we were getting closer. We stuck together making it easier to move through the traffic and it wasn’t long before we found we were flying along, moving at the same pace as the traffic which was building more and more, as was the excitement. We started entering the built up outskirts, with the traffic now slowing for traffic lights and pedestrians we started to weave in and out, dodging cars, taxies and pedestrians getting off the buses. We had to really concentrate but this was what we expected and it was great fun! We were riding a giant wave of traffic in to the gateway to Asia. This was great and we were all grinning from ear to ear. We had all made it this far and were still alive : )
We reached a large mosque and weaved our way down through a steep narrow street to the river, Sharon joined us with a puncture in her front tyre. It was only her second puncture in the whole trip. We sat on the river bank over looking the city while Tim changed the inner tube. We bought tea from a tea seller and ate turkish delight while the colours of the sunset hung over us. It was truly magical.
We asked for directions to the old city where our hostel was and made our way across the river. With a rough grid reference we slowly got closer to the hostel although at times we wondered if it ever existed. We finally found it thanks to the help of a local cafe owner. We walked in to find the bike store and our room were up a long spiral staircase four stories up. This was going to be interesting. After what felt like a thousand bikes and a thousand bags all put away in the right place we could finally relax and have a well deserved beer : )
Sunday 28th October -Saturday 3rd November
We had a long list of things to do whilst in Istanbul and were grateful to have landed at a quiet hostel. During the day it was usually just us so we could spread out our things at the table in the communal area and get on with our ‘home work’.
We dedicated a couple of days to sleeping and another couple to site seeing and lapping up the delights of Istanbul. To get to the main part of the city we had to cross the Blue bridge (below). During the day dozens of fishermen fish along the river – many cooking and selling what they catch. The bridge would come alive at night with restaurants and cafes offering food, beer and shisha.
We visited the Sultan Ahmed Mosque which is popularly known as the Blue Mosque for the many blue tiles adorning its interior walls. There are actually approximately 20,000 hand-made tiles in total. It was built from 1609 to 1616 – suprisingly quick we thought considering the detail. While still used as a mosque, the Sultan Ahmed Mosque has also become a popular tourist attraction open to visitors in between prayer times. It is famous for its 6 minarets (most mosques have 4) and it also has 8 domes as well as the main one. As we headed towards the entrance we were stopped by a guy who told us about a free lecture on Islam that would be starting in a couple of minutes. We decided to go along and were glad we did as it was really interesting. Afterwards we entered the Blue Mosque and it was truly magnificent inside – we took our time wondering around.
We also went to the Aya Sofya which since 360 A.D. has been the site of 3 churches – both the first and second burned down – the first as a result of rioting and the second as a result of its wooden roof setting on fire. The third one which is the current structure was built in 532 A.D. In 1453 however it was converted into a mosque after Sultan Mehmed laid siege to Constantinople (as the city was known then) partly in a desire to convert the city to Islam. In 1935 the building was taken over as a museum which it remains to be today with mny artefacts from its colourful past including some stunning mosaics depicting scenes from the Bible. The detail was so intricate they looked like paintings from a distance.
The Grand bazaar was also on our list of places to see – it has 60 streets and 5,000 stalls. It has existed since 1461 and is now famous for its spices, carpets, jewellery and antiques. To be honest after half an hour we were ready to get out!
One important task we wanted to get done whilst in Istanbul was apply for our Sudanese visas. We had a contact via a good friend of Sharon’s who was a tower of strength throughout the whole process. When we arrived at the Sudan consulate they told us that they couldn’t help as they only dealt with Turkish nationals and they had never heard of the contact name we had been given. They told us that we also needed a letter of invitation from our Embassy. We returned 2 days later after some persistant hard work by our contacts at home and armed with a letter of invitation from our contact. At first they refused to look at the letter as it wasn’t from the British embassy but with some persistance we were able to speak to someone in authority who agreed to consider the application. We filled in an application form and with it being the end of the day they told us to bring the form back the following day first thing. They also asked us to pay for the visas at a specific bank and gave us their account number. We went straight to the bank who frustratingly told us that only a Turkish person could pay money in as they needed an ID number. Not to be detered Sharon asked someone on the street to pay the money in for us. The lady agreed and Sharon rejoined the queue. The cashier then told Sharon that it would be better if it was someone from the consulate that paid the money in as this lady’s name would be on the reciept and she was not connected. Sharon took a deep breath. We decided that when we returned to the consulate the following day we would explain that we couldn’t pay the money in and hope they would accept it.
We got up early the next morning and went straight to the consulate. We gave them the forms and told them about the bank -they asked for the money and said they could bank it. We handed our passports over and were told to come back that afternoon at 3pm. We rode back, still not allowing ourselves to be excited and continued doing our ‘homework’ at the hostel. At 2.15pm we headed back to the consulate and they handed us our passports with our visas. Throughout the process they constantly asked if we were journalists and seemed suprised that we were excited about cycling through Sudan! We are so pleased to have them as they are notoriously difficult to get. The guy at the counter who originally didn’t seem to want to help us, then wanted our email address and was keen for us to keep in touch. He was actually from Iraq and has invited us to visit in the future.
While we were at the hostel we were constantly entertained by Emrad who worked there, he was a very colourful character who helped the time pass while we were sorting out our visas and blog.
Sunday 4th November
We woke knowing we needed to leave the city that day but wanted to squeeze in a visit to the Basilica Cistern which is the largest of several hundred ancient cisterns that lie beneath the city of Istanbul. The cistern was built in the 6th century and featured in the James Bond film ‘From Russia with Love’ – not ‘Diamonds are for Trevor’ as Tim had previously suggested.
It was truly awesome to see. After an hour or so, we headed out into the bright sunlight and walked to our hostel via a different route sad to be leaving such an amazing city.
We were later than planned leaving the hostel – it was about 3pm when we finally got going but we had ticked everything off our list. We decided to head back to the Blue mosque to take some pictures and a nice bloke called Robert spent time taking some great shots.
As we rode out of town we spotted a large suspension bridge which crossed the Bosphorus – a stretch of water that seperates Europe and Asia. We asked some traffic police and they told us we could cross the bridge. We headed up a very steep hill only to be told that bikes weren’t allowed on it. Annoyed we rode back down and asked again, to be told there was a ferry a few kilometres along the road. As we were riding along, we stopped to chat to an American guy called Bob who approached us. It turned out that he had just ridden through Africa and was on his way to Israel. He told us that he was unable to get his Ethiopian visa as the rules had changed and he could only apply from his home country. This was also the case for other travellers he met. It meant he had to fly over Ethiopia as there was no other option. We’ll have to wait and see what the Embassy tell us. Bob also told us that the ferry up the river wasn’t very frequent on a Sunday and it would be better to ride back the way we had come to take a more regular ferry. We rode 5km back to the busy ferry port we had ridden past and hadn’t seen earlier, stopping on the way to get a kebab as it was past our dinner time by then. We were really frustrated that we were only a few kms away from our hostel but determined to continue, we boarded the ferry. 20 minutes later we found ourselves in the Asian side of the city and spent the next couple of hours climbing up and down through a very built up area. With none of the roads going in the direction we needed and no where to camp, we asked a guy on the side of the road if there were any cheap hotels nearby.
He disappeared to ask and came back leading us to a hotel about 100 metres away. It was anything but cheap – it was 150 TL (about £55) which was way over our budget. We told him thanks but we would have to ride on. He insisted that there would be no where for us to go and wanted to help us. We were astonished as he handed the hotelier 100 TL towards our room. At his insistance we finally accepted his generosity and our bikes were put to bed locked in a shed and we found ourselves in a large en-suite hotel room with wifi ; )
Next installment coming soon…
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