Istanbul is one of the great cities of the world, and the first major milestone of our journey to New Zealand. On leaving Plovdiv we had given ourselves five days of fairly short distances to get there.
With one eye on getting to the Turkish border, and both eyes on getting to Istanbul, the first day out of Plovdiv was always going to be a drag and we were not surprised when we were greeted with light rain and very overcast skies. Thankfully the rain abated and the overcast skies had actually conjured up a slight tail wind, so the first 60 odd kilometres flew by. Then out of nowhere, at 3756km from our beloved South Wimbledon flat the first puncture of the journey decided to turn up. I guess we should be thankful that it took that long, but deep down we had hoped to make it all the way to Asia with the puncture count sitting at 0. For the record, it was my front wheel that suffered the fate of the first puncture. I suspect that this is based on two major contributing factors; one, my bike (with me on it) is probably twice as heavy as Katie’s bike (read rotund packhorse); two, my tires have done about 3000 kms more than Katie’s due to my commute to work (read, trying to find a better excuse than being rotund). On the bright side, the puncture did occur in the vicinity of a petrol station and we were able to make full use of their wonderful grass verge to fix it, and also put into practice what we were taught in our maintenance course. On the not so bright side (from my point of view), Katie now has the puncture bragging rights!
Our final evening in Bulgaria was spent at an excellent campsite (Sakar Hills) near the town of Biser, cheap with fantastic facilities. If cycling east towards Turkey we would really recommend this place as it puts you within touching distance for the cycle to the border. The last kick from Svilengrad to the border is an enormous four-lane road, with equally enormous hard shoulder; perfect from cracking through the kms.
As we were racing along this enormous road from Svilengrad to the border we really felt as if we were getting close to Turkey. All that we have heard is how friendly everyone is, and we received our first taste of this here. As the many trucks passed, affording us plenty of space, the drivers would sound their horn and wave out with encouragement. I don’t mean a grown-ups wave, or a royal wave, I mean an excitable child-like wave; no pretence, no trying to look correct, just raw excitement and encouragement. Our spirits soared. About 5km from the border we saw that the trucks were slowing and pulling over to park in the hard shoulder. This meant that not only did we get to cycle past a large number of trucks, their drivers waving back with child-like freedom, it also meant that even though the road was now thick with trucks, they were barely moving, and we were given what was essentially a two lane hard-shoulder, albeit in the middle of the road. We estimate there were between four and five hundred trucks waiting to get in to Turkey.
Having endured more pointless conversations with British border officials than I care to remember, it is with some trepidation that I approach a border (new or otherwise). It does not necessarily matter if you have your papers in order, but more a case of how the border agent (for want of a better word) is feeling. Turkey was no different! We were feeling pretty good about ourselves, having cycled all the way, but this clearly did not rub off on the man behind the counter reading his online newspaper (something akin to The Daily Star). He could not have been more affronted when we turned up to interrupt his leisurely reading.
I presented our passports and an iPhone, which held a copy of our respective visas (the official guidelines state that you do not need a printed copy). The sight of the iPhone must have triggered something deep down because he flew into an unabated rage, to become a shaking, gnarling mess of a man. Calmly, and in my most patronising voice I stated that there was no requirement to print the papers and held my ground (we did not want to cycle back into the EU to find a printer). I am certain he did not understand a word I said, but the sight of us not moving or even remotely appearing to budge just fuelled the fire of an already out of control man. Firstly he placed Katie’s passport in the scanner and then reviewed my visa on the screen of the iPhone. Nothing matched and by now it seemed that he might just burst into flames. Ordinarily I would have pointed this out, but given that saying anything seemed to have a negative result on his demeanour I thought he should figure it out for himself. He eventually did, which led to the icing on the cake (as it were). He removed the passport from the scanner (everything officially in order), smashed it down on the counter with one hand and reached over to the entry-stamp with the other. He lifted the stamp and slammed it down so hard on the dotter pad that he covered his hand in the ink residue that was displaced. This was nothing on how he treated the passport though; it was analogous to watching Travolta bury the needle into Thurman in the classic Pulp Fiction scene. The result was a Sarajevo Rose of a stamp in the passport. This comedy was repeated for my passport and then everyone was happy. We had our stamps, he had his newspaper, and we were free to head ever east.
Even though we were happy to be in Turkey the experience with the man at the gate was a little unnerving; thankfully all was forgotten within 20 seconds. The second person we met (the customs official) could not have been more friendly and helpful, and was genuinely interested in making our lives as easy as possible. This seems to be the norm here in Turkey and confirms all that we have read from previous cyclists. It just goes to show that judging books by their covers is never a smart move.
The rest of the day passed mostly without incident (bar a crazed dog that thought it was a great idea to chase us) and as sunset approached it was time to start looking for a place to camp. This was interrupted as we passed through a small village (so small it is not even on Google maps) and were beckoned over to a roadside café with the now familiar words çay, çay, çay (ç is pronounced ch in Turkish). What an experience this was, our first offer of çay and two great characters to share it with. Neither man could speak English, but we managed to hold some sort of wonderful conversation, mostly about the fact that one of them appeared to have 30 children and 52 grand-children (that at least is what we gleaned from the conversation). When it came time to leave (three çays later) we were absolutely, under no circumstances allowed to pay and were waved off by what seemed like the whole village that had turned out to see us. That night, our first in Turkey was spent camped on the edge of a field of drooping sunflowers, that glistened, and danced in the most beautiful light thrown down to us by the harvest moon that was so large in the sky we felt we could reach out and touch it. At some point in the night, the sound of a field mouse rustling outside woke me and at the very same instant I heard the swooping of wings. A large bird came out of nowhere and straight onto our tent, using the highest pole as a perch, where you could see its magnificent outline silhouetted in the moonlight. I must have startled it as it did not stay long, but the huge expanse of its wings as it moved on was something I will not forget in a hurry. A night of truly wonderful experiences; and to some extent our very own #microadventure!
Continually being buffeted by the wind and mocked by the ever-rolling hills the second day turned out to be a huge struggle, and as we crested what turned out to be the final hill of the day a large flat basin stretched out before us. We surged forward, over the crest and down towards the flat expanse. Halfway down the hill we saw what looked like an ideal spot for some camping. Buoyed by our success from the previous evening and the fact it was getting on towards dusk we turned off the road and pushed our bikes out of site in amongst a number of small oak trees. What we found was a truly remarkable location affording us spectacular views out over the basin towards the setting sun.
Tent pitched, views taken in, dinner consumed, teeth brushed, about to head off to bed… and then I saw it; thankfully it did not see me. A large, stray Kangal dog (I can assure you they are not to be messed with)! Struck down with fear and frozen to the earth like a lifeless rock I crouched, speechless, sweating profusely, and wondering why on earth we had pitched the tent where we had. After a period of time, probably not much more than 20 seconds (but it felt like an eternity) I got up enough courage to skirt around to my side of the tent, quickly enter, zip it closed, and lay frozen. It did not take too long for the dogs (yes there were numerous, a pack you could say) to find us, and when they did they spent a short time sniffing the edge of the tent and then left us alone. This would repeat itself every hour or so throughout the night. The only exception to this rule was when we were rudely awoken due to a large animal (which was clearly being harassed/chased by the dogs) hurtling into the side of our tent. This was quite alarming to say the least and should teach us not to pitch a tent across well-worn animal tracks. Dogs are something that we are slowly, but surely getting used to here in Turkey, but this first experience, when laying in the tent, basically defenceless was a definite lowlight of what has been an incredible journey. It was a relief when morning finally broke and we could leave the area of torment behind us.
The final two days into Istanbul were at least as brutal, if not more brutal than the first two days in Turkey. The hills got bigger, the wind got stronger and more direct, and Istanbul taunted us with its close proximity.
Cycling into Istanbul from the Black Sea was an incredible experience! I mean really incredible experience! The view that we got as we rounded a bend at the top of a large hill bordering the Bosphorus gave me goose bumps. I had been to Istanbul twice before, both times by plane, both times for the ANZAC day commemorations, and both times I only really scratched the surface, took some photos, ticked off some sights and continued on with my life. Nothing I had seen on previous trips prepared me for what we were now looking at. The Dardanelles (and by extension the Bosphorus) mean a great deal to Kiwis and Aussies, and I think it is fair to say that I was overcome with an emotion that I was not expecting. Within a blink of a (very teary) eye a million things fell into place and I began to really understand, and appreciate what those poor ANZAC (and Turkish) boys were fighting for all those years ago.
With the goose bumps and views behind us, Katie and I flew down the hill, through the winding streets, and onto the boulevard that follows the Bosphorus all the way to the Golden Horn. The road was thick with Sunday morning traffic; throngs of people were pilling into (and out of) waterside restaurants and the smiles on our faces were wider than they had been on the whole trip. We were so pleased to be at the edge of Europe that it was if we were floating over the road on a magic carpet. This however came to an abrupt end when we saw someone that was so familiar it was almost a piss-take. A man with an incredibly uncanny resemblance to Happy Gilmore’s caddy lunged from the street towards Katie, fist raised ready to strike (he looked and sounded like a drunk lunatic). To be honest neither of us were prepared for it, and to this day neither of us are too sure why he stopped, re-gathered what composure he had and resisted punching Katie. Perhaps he was doing it to scare us, perhaps it was all a sick joke, perhaps he didn’t like the smiles on our faces, we’re not too sure; but it was a startling act and one that left us slightly shaken.
Much like the man serving Sarejavo Rose’s in our passports, Happy’s caddy was brushed aside as an anomaly and we cycled the last two or three kms to the Beşiktaş ferry terminal, smiles in tact and very pleased to have conquered Europe. One continent down, two to go!