Friday, 10 January 2014

a great leap eastwards

There's nothing quite like riding into a big city after cycling through open country for a few days, and they don't get much bigger than Istanbul.  So we take a boat.  It carries us across the Marmara Sea and spits us out at the back of the Blue Mosque in Sultanahmet.  How tidy is that?  Within minutes we are accosted by three young men with one bike.  Ollie and Jodie have cycled here from the UK in 21/2 months (on two bikes).  Now Dan has flown out to swap places with Jodie for the next stage to India.  They are young and probably don't have much money but they have something special.  You can see it in their faces and it's infectious.  Excitement.  We chat for quite a while until we all start to feel cold.  We swap contact details.  Hopefully we will meet Ollie and Dan again along the way.  There's something important about meeting other cyclists on a long journey - maybe just knowing we're not the only ones?  Or something about having a shared experience?  Either way, it seems we are the first cyclists that Ollie has met properly since he began cycling from Cape Town to home and then from home to Istanbul.  

Our ride from Çanakkale was an uneventful three days of fast cycling by our recent standards.  Cold, grey but dry days on a big highway that made it easy for us.  The hills tended to be long but the gradients were good and we often had a long descent as a reward for any climb.  The towns we passed through were also grey and bland, interspersed with ploughed fields and sometimes very nice stretches of woodland, but these eventually gave way to small industrial units and empty buildings.  We camped one night between stacks of logs just off the road and then once more in an olive grove - our last.  We have finally left the Mediterranean. 

Istanbul really does feel like a gateway between Europe and Asia, cliche or not.  We spend a few days here revisiting some of our favourite places and buying a few things.  You only have to walk around a bit to realise that the Turks invented shopping.  There's the huge shopping street that runs from Taksim Square all the way down to Galata Bridge.  There are large malls dotted around the suburbs.  And then there's the Grand Bazaar.  Most visitors might think it a bit touristy but on a cold January morning the place was heaving with Turks.  Not many tourists around.  (The best chat-up line: "How can I sell you something you don't need?")  Stray off the main route and you end up in a small han where you are transported back to the times of the Sultan.   Or even Dickens -  small offices, shops and tradesmen on the upper floor with storerooms below around a courtyard with a single tree.

a screen print from Deniz, Gaya and Kerem's landlord
We are staying in Kadiköy on the Asian side of the Bosphorous with our Warm Showers hosts Kerem and Gaya.  Everyone says this is the quieter side of Istanbul but it's hard to tell when we get off the ferry with the rush-hour commuters.  Kerem meets us at a park and leads us to their appartment but then has to dash back to work- he and Gaya work at a local yoga centre.  They eat and sleep there most of the time but share an appartment where they can shower and escape to.  It feels a bit odd because in the five days we stay here we rarely see anyone.  Gaya has just got a new bike for touring after she, Kerem and his dad had a trial 10-day tour in Turkey in the summer.  It's still a nascent activity here - we go and visit a new shop opened by three cycle-tourers who have a good stock of bikes and bits for touring.  They are very friendly and help us sort out our Istanbul escape route: we plan to take a bus to Samsun. 

Kadikoy film festival

Having done all our chores, including getting the SLR fixed and me finding some shoes for the cold weather ahead, and checking our visa strategy for getting into Iran and on through the "Stans" of Central Asia, we finally depart.  Taking a bus is the easy way out of the capital although the ride to the bus station is rather long and exciting in the traffic. At 8 o'clock in the evening we are loading our bikes onto a Kamil Koç bus (this being the one national bus company that has a free bike carrying policy) and setting off through the extended suburbs of Istanbul to our destination halfway along the Black Sea coast.

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