To the Land of the Leather Jackets – Istanbul and into the Balkans

17 Apr

The last night in Africa, eating around the fire with the Kent’s, Eleanor’s authentic Thai food and Lauren singing songs in Swahili, Lauren and her dad ‘Cooks’ stand up to tell jokes or stories, they’re a very close and entertaining family. Lovely people. I go to bed full of white wine.

The next day I box up the bike and secure with twine using the Wakon Fastening Knot. Eleanor drove me to the airport and Lauren got off work early to come along. We said goodbye at departures and I pushed my oversized luggage inside to find the flight delayed 5 or 6 hours (it kept changing back and forth). Beers and Premiership football sorted that. And generous half-cups of whisky on the plane made the flight more like time travel.

Looking forward to the whole Eastern Europe leg. A bit blaze’, like when I flew to Kenya. We’ll see when we get there. Culture shock ahoy.

On arrival, after waiting a while for my bike box and being told by laughing Turkish Airlines baggage handlers that it’s probably still in Jo’burg, I dragged the bike box and my bags out into the arrivals area. No drinking water for under 3 euros and international airport standard information on budget accommodation had me sitting on the floor, thirsty as hell – all that whiskey – pinching internet from a cafe to find a route into town and a place to stay. Putting the bike back together took time and I arrived at Mavi Guesthouse, in Istanbul’s most touristy area, at around 5pm after landing at 10am. Lack of planning wasn’t a problem in Africa. I was peeved with Turkey.

The jumbled mosque dotted skyline, crowds fishing the Marmara Sea splitting the city, non-stop traffic; deadly trams snaking through town, dark haired, big nosed people, disinterested macho young men in leather jackets and friendly, fatherly old men were my initial experience of Istanbul. The size and bustle and the complexity of it all gave me a headache and I needed a drink. I cycled the extreme slopes of the cobbled centre to a supermarket to buy beer and bread (can of supermarket beer – 3.65 lev / 1.80 euro. Bread loaf .35 lev / .18 euro. Slab of speadable chocolate 2.50 lev / 1.25 euro) and a group of leather jackets took interest in the bike. One neat, grey haired man gave me his card, he owned a posh boutique, and promised that if I needed anything I should call him.

In places I found Istanbul to have a warm and tactile character which reminded me of Africa. Men still took my hand when offering directions, and called over their friends if they don’t have the answer, or quite enough english language / pantomiming abilities.

The Spice Market is nearby and I walked there with some German girls and a French guy, Garcon. Tacky magic lamps, wood and string instruments, piles of fiery spices and bakhlava and masters of pushy commerce spill out in a vast grid of marble archways to disorientate and tempt. The Egyptian market near the water is where Istanbullians shop, and more relaxing to explore. Vast arsenals of knives and hardware, plastics and leather jackets and everything else are to be found in the maze of curving stone passageways.

Possibly, the fastest food anywhere is found on the waterside in Istanbul. As soon as you pull 5 lev out of your pocket you’re handed a fish sandwich. Sit down on a tiny stool on the street and add salt and squeeze lemon juice on and it’s delicious. You’re unlikely to finish chewing your last bite before they carry your table away for the new customers.

While the other tourists went ‘to Asia’, which is a short ferry ride away, I walked into a crumbling, graffiti ridden concrete passageway by shisha pipe cafes to see a small art gallery. A broad shouldered old nose with an impressive beard told me not to be ‘stingy’ when I declined to purchase his charcoal drawings.

Turkish language is tricky. Basic words are long and variable. It took a couple of days just to remember ‘thank-you’, pronounced tehr-shay-kuhr-luh-DUH-reem/rum (still not sure).

Istanbul city centre is an expensive area to drink. But, like many places, one where I must drink. I had no physical escape from the claustrophobia of the city, the guesthouse dorm – a 20 bed rooftop room – turned into a literal building site from 12-10pm, everyone’s bags being piled up and mixed up with the dust and woodwork. After a couple of days here newly arrived backpackers could enter the guesthouse to find me massaging my temples in the cramped reception/lounge.
I couldn’t easily socialise with the Istanbullians. They have a hard cliquiness about them probably reinforced by the thronging tourists bumbling up the streets boring up the place. I drank a bottle of wine and felt better. Some Frenchies from the guesthouse returned and joined me. They assured me that the wine I had just finished was disgusting. I hadn’t noticed. We went and bought more, haggling hard to get one bottle for 12 lev from the cornershop.

Now, as the discerning reader will not have noticed, I’m not one to complain… but Istanbul was cold. And Bulgaria and Macedonia were probably going to be chilly too. I had not expected or prepared for cold weather, but I quickly resigned myself to buying a warm top. At this point, out of the blue, a Moroccan friend gave me his leather bomber jacket. I hadn’t said anything to him about the cold or buying a top. He simply said he didn’t want it, he was going back to Dubai and wouldn’t need it. Now I’ve really arrived, blending in, in a leather jacket.

On a side note: I had a good time in Istanbul, smoking shisha, eating kebabs, drinking Turkish coffee with good people, most of whom were in the city for a week – Enough  time to see the sights. 2 days was enough to ride around, get the bike brakes renewed, buy some replacement sunglasses, see the markets and admire the Blue Mosque and ancient city streets and walls, massage the temples with bottles of beer and wine. But not enough time to explore properly. There’s much, much more to see. Next time I’ll make sure not to be sleeping in a building site, too.

But I had to leave, I’ve got to get to Corfu by the 20th April to meet another Frenchie who’s joining me for the ride up the Dalmation Coast. I took the bus to Sofia, with an aim to ride down from Bulgaria, through Macedonia and into Albania to the ferry port in Saranda.

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