Istanbul!

Sorry for being tardy, but I was too busy enjoying my last few trek days to post, and too busy getting my pre-trek life back on track now I’m back, that I haven’t had time to post much until now :-p

Excuses over with, here are some pics from my wanderings in Istanbul! just click any of them and a slideshow should pop up.

My first evening in Istanbul I met with fellow couch surfer Zeynep, who gave me a great intro to Istanbul over a beer and chips at the Midpoint bar & restaurant, overlooking the Bosphorous at sunset!

Zeynep, an Istanbul native, furthered my food experiences at the Turkish restaurant Konak on Istiklal, the main high street. Where I tried Iskandar, Lamb Kofte shish, and Turkish pizza. All were dangerously tasty! Later, we met up with Chris at one of the numerous bars. To expand our drink experience, we tried some Raki. A Turkish aperitif Similar to ouzo or sambucca. The grape based, anise flavoured drink is pretty powerful stuff!

The next day, 31st October, I headed out on my cycle up to the black sea, as my previous post covers. That evening, I met up with Chris, Chris’s friend Cansu, and Temur another couch surfer friend in Taksim square.  We spent the evening talking about everything from Turkish history to tales from our travels, and why there were protesters abound (it seems Turkey’s job prospects for young people echo our own!), enjoyed more tasty food and a relaxing drink.

On my first proper day off  in Istanbul, I followed Zeynep’s advice and headed South!

At the bottom of Istiklal street, the 9 storey tall Galata tower, built in 1348, stands high above it’s nearby surroundings. I’d seen the tower the evening before whilst out with Temur and Chris, this was definately a good spot to start a sight seeing bike ride 🙂

From here, I cycled down the steep cobbled streets towards Galata bridge and on to the Sultanahmet district of old Istanbul, where I visited the Blue mosque. After my first visit inside a mosque in Edirne, I now knew the drill: no shoes, no shorts. I found them a fascinating place to visit, and those I have visited so far have been beautiful inside and out. “Yeah, but why is it called blue?” I hear you say? It’s hard to make out in my snaps, but the predominant colour of the glazed tiles covering the walls was a pale blue. Simples!

Also in the Sultanahmet district is Topkapi palace. Main residence for the Ottoman Sulatans for 400 years, home to  many treasures and religious artifacts such as Prophet Muhammed’s cloak and sword! My photos are all from the palace grounds and buildings, as sadly they have a very strict ‘no photography’ policy in the most fantastic parts of the palace: the treasuries and armoury.

The treasuries held a combination of; Ottoman artifacts in precious metals, gem stones and fine crafts, gifts from foreign states and spoils of war. One interesting piece was an almighty diamond, set in silver, surrounded by 49 brilliants. One of the many stories of it’s origin goes: A homeless beggar found what he thought to be a crystal of some sort in a rubbish dump. This he sold to a street pedlar for the grand sum of 3 spoons. The street pedlar appraised it a little higher, as maybe a semi-precious stone, and sold it on to jeweller. The jeweller however, discoverd it to be an 86 carat diamond, even now considered to be only the fourth largest of it’s kind in the world. Needless to say, the magnificent jewel was procured by the Sultan, and fashioned first into a colossal ring and later a centrepiece for a crown.

That story earned it the name: Spoonmaker’s diamond. 🙂

There were hundreds of pieces on display, but another that particularly caught my eye was an enormous broad sword. around 7 feet long, and maybe 6 inches across at the hilt, it must have been wielded by one golliath of a man. The sword, apparently of Hungarian origin, looked like it weighed maybe 20-30 kilos. It’d certainly make an interesting, if slightly more dangerous,  substitute for a kettlebell!

Other religious artefacts held in the treasuries included:  Moses’ rod, Abraham’s saucepan (?), Joseph’s (as in technicolour dreamcoat) turban, and the gold covered skull and arm of John the baptist. I can’t personally vouch for the validity of these pieces, unlike a diamond being irrefutably a diamond, Moses hadn’t scratched his name into his staff (at least not that I saw).

After being awed for several hours at Topkapi palace, I grabbed a tasty but  unhealthy lunch of baklava, and headed to the Fatih district to experience a Hamam, or Turkish bath, for myself. Zeynap had kindly researched them for me, and recommended the Sofular Hamami.

The experience starts off similar to a sauna: You lay or sit in an ornate marble & stone hot room, wearing only a towel, surrounded by hot water sinks from where you can wash. After maybe 20 minutes of warming up, my hamamist, Halil, a big burly chap with a belly and lots of hair, comes and starts tenderising you. Part massage, part limb stretching, it is a relaxing experience so long as you trust the guy not to pull your arms off. From there, you both leave the hot room and go into one of the washing areas. The next phase is quite gross, but also quite satisfying! Halil, using a thick, rough goats hair mitt scrubbed my arms, back, legs, chest and face until rolls of dead, dirty skin peeled off :-@ At the time I imagined it to feel akin to if a lion or tiger were to lick you clean 🙂 Next up after ex-foliation, you get all that mess rinsed off you, and a thorough soapy scrubb, including a hair wash (which I was much in need of). Finally, now fully relaxed and squeaky clean (literally), you dry yourself in crisp fresh towels and relax a while before getting dressed again. A great experience that I will repeat at first opportunity 🙂

And so, after a couple of days off I had seen a small fraction of what Istanbul had to offer, and liked all of it. Istanbul, another place on my list to revisit!

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The End of the Road… For Now

So that’s it. Today, after 8,404 kilometres of cycling through 20 countries, I jumped on a ferry at Besiktas on the European side of Istanbul and crossed the Bosphorous, adding a second continent to the list. Sadly you can’t ride over – Jim tried unsuccessfully on Monday – but that didn’t bother me too much. I got to look at Europe from Asia and that drew a line under my trip. No more cycling for me; at least not until I’m back home. My bike, its work done, now lies in pieces in a box ready for the flight back tomorrow.

Before I head back to the UK I wanted to write a farewell post, but I also wanted to avoid being oversentimental, which is quite hard really. The tour has been a great opportunity to explore a large and historically significant stretch of Europe and was life-changing in lots of ways. I’m going to try and summarise these as best I can, while hopefully not sounding like Halle Berry doing an Oscars speech in the process.

It goes without saying that going by bike is going to offer a different experience than if I had taken another form of transport. Cycling by its nature is slow and requires physical effort; my average speed for the trip worked out at about 18km/h, more like 15 when we hit the mountains. But this quickly became part of the pleasure, because it amplified the experience. You get to see, hear and smell the world around you in a way that you couldn’t in a car, bus or train. You’re exposed to the elements, which is great on a sunny day and challenging in the rain and wind. When you go quickly, it’s a real joy. When you know you’re riding slower than you can normally walk, it’s a right pain. All the while though, the sense of travelling under my own steam was rewarding and above all, fun. It had to be, or else I would have chucked my bike in a ditch in Finland and gone to Sharm el-Sheikh instead.

The major limitation to cycling is how far you can travel in a day. Our range varied from about 150km per day on the Baltic coast (flat), down to 55km over the mountains in Bulgaria (less flat). This means that you find yourself staying in places that most people don’t go. Some of these are oases of natural beauty which we are lucky to have in Europe and are mostly unheard of, perhaps for the better.

Logistically it wasn’t as much of a nightmare as I thought it would be. In Europe, especially in the EU, most national borders are now notional. It’s rare that you see any fences between nations these days, and for a continent that has seen its fair share of conflict over the past thousand years or so that is a truly wonderful thing. It’s something you notice more when you come from an island nation, especially a eurosceptic one such as the UK. Our borders, at least on the British mainland, are natural. But the experience of most of the rest of the continent is different. When borders move, lives change. It’s only 20 years since half of the continent was behind an economic and military impasse and the legacy of that is still visible in many places today.

Our route took us to a lot of remote border areas; there were definitely one or two hick towns in there. But in every country we were rewarded by the hospitality of people we met. Human nature has been confirmed in my mind as a Good Thing. Often our choice of transport and route was met with a mix of confusion and amusement, but never in a negative way. Generally people got it when you spoke to them about the ride, and that has been both a pleasure and a morale boost in itself. I remember the jolly pensioner outside a Lidl who patted me on the back and wished me the best of German luck, and a Serbian truck driver shouting ‘Keep going!’ when I was soaked to the skin and struggling up a mountain. Simple but wonderful moments which lift your spirits no end.

For me, the biggest achievement isn’t in the distance we’ve travelled, but in grasping the idea that anything is achievable if you put your mind to it. I am now pretty confident that if I want to do anything big like this again, I can. It’s just a case of taking the right approach, having enough time and applying the appropriate amount of effort. That’s not always easy depending on your circumstances, but I saw some great examples of people who have achieved great things with next to no resources. We met Goce, a cycle traveller in Macedonia who cycled to France on an old mountain bike with a budget of 10 euros a day. He slept rough for most of it and I was slightly embarrassed by the complexity of my setup compared to his.

There were low points of course. My Achilles injury flared up twice and on both occasions I honestly thought my tour was over. In Hungary I had a sad and lonely experience (the only resident in a large hotel, limping from bed to breakfast to pub and back for three days), but getting through that just added to the sense of achievement that I now feel.

The next big thing for me is getting home and returning to ‘normal’ life. Normal in the sense that I need to get a job, pay off my credit card and live in the same place for longer than three or four days at a time. But not normal in the sense of soul-sapping drudgery. I feel I can go back to my day-to-day with a different approach. I’ve got some ideas about my next trip and it probably won’t take 5 months and be in one go. But not knowing, and waiting for the inspiration to take root, will be the fun part. The harder part, which will be a test of time and willpower, will be not to lose sight of the fact that you can make an otherwise ordinary life less so by following up on those great ideas you occasionally have.

Now for the Halle Berry part… those of a nervous disposition may wish to check their emails instead.

I would like to thank everyone who has supported us and read our blog, commented on my Facebook posts and followed the Twitter feed over the past few months. A special thank you to my sister Apryl who has been a constant source of humour, strength and encouragement, even in those darkest moments.

A special thanks too to my friends Des, Rupert, Julia, Anne, Barbora and Cansu who visited in person and offered food, accommodation and the use of washing machines along the way. In every instance I was genuinely spoilt and I owe you all several pints.

Speaking of which, nuff respect to those of you who supported my drink problem via PayPal. You were the wind (sometimes literally) behind my wheels. Cheers!

Finally, I had the chance to meet hundreds of people along the way. Without that experience I might as well have done the ride on Google Street View. Thank you all for your hospitality, warmth and patience listening to the story of my ride.

In the absence of a highlight reel, here are some pictures from the whole trip that I pulled from my phone. Enjoy!

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Fin.

Well said Chris!
I’ve pre-posted this, as I couldn’t have written a better last post! Also, I was lazy about blogging whilst enjoying myself in Turkey and should really have posted this on the 31st October!

Not strictly part of the iron curtain, but so close to it’s Southern end, it would be crazy not to visit Istanbul!
Also, as the trip started right on the Barrents sea, passed along the Baltic sea, and touched on the sea of Marmara, I wanted to finish it off at the Black sea!
Istanbul is a city of two halves: European, and Asian side. Divided neatly and beautifully by the river Bosphorous. Against best advice of several rational minded, thoughtful (and indeed correct) Turkish people, I decided I wanted to at least try and cycle across to the Asian (Eastern) half of Istanbul, then on to the Black sea coast. I’d been told that this was not possible, permissable, sensible or sane.
However, being a little stubborn, I wanted to try for myself :-p
And so, I found out first hand the reasons for why:
• both of the large suspension bridges that span the Bosphorous are motorways.
• With dartford style toll crossings.
• Manic, 130kph traffic.
• And police with smiley faces, but guns in their hands saying nah-ah.
😦
That said, the police and other drivers were tolerant of me on the motorway, just not the actual bridge section. After my feeble and ultimately futile attempts at persuading the traffic control guards that “I’d be ok, it’s nothing to worry about, I’ve ridden on busy roads before!” Etc etc. a kind hearted truck driver, with space in the back, and his remarkably cheery dad in the front, beckoned me over and let me hitch a lift across! 😀
However, my Turkish language skills being non existent, and a little confusion with my hand signals meant I dissembarked about 20km further into the Asian side than I intended. By the side of the motorway. Needless to say, I thanked the friendly father and son kindly, waved them farewell, then set off down the hard shoulder.
After picking my way North over the last hills I’d ride on this trip, I came to the mouth of the Bosphorous, the edge of the Black sea itself, and the end of my cycle trek.
My homage consisted of eating a snickers and an apple whilst watching the gulls and the shipping go by, and soaking up the tingly feeling in my spine associated with completing a large, challenging, but ultimately very fun Tour!
All that remained then (after another fun game of can we cross the Bosphorous), was to enjoy my short stay in Istanbul 🙂

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Fleet footing through Greece, and Into Turkey!

We passed through Greece only briefly. Still, we had enough time to ford a weir, get wet, enjoy a Souvlaki and a fix of beer, whilst drying our socks on a god sent wood stove!

After leaving Greece, our first city in Turkey was Edirne, right in the North West of the country. Riding in past a grove of the biggest silver birches I’d ever seen, across a bridge I later found was built by the legendary Mimar Sinan, we were pleasantly surprised to find a hotel right on the main street. We took a rest day in Edirne, on my day off I met with a couch surfing friend, Özlem (thankyou!) and her friend, for a little lunch and an introduction to Edirne, Turkey and it’s foods. Yum!

(click any of the pics to open the slideshow)

After a great day off relaxing, involuntary dog walking, and wandering about Edirne we cycled on towards Silivri. Right on the coast of the sea of Marmara, we were lucky enough to stay in a hotel with a great view too:

On the way to Silivri, I cycled in convoy with some tanks and APCs out on manoeuvres:

These guys were LOUD! (track: Diesel Power by the Prodigy)

Next Day: Istanbul!

A Day of Turkish Culture; More Adventures in Getting Naked With Old Men…

So after a quick blitz from Bulgaria to Greece, with a quick stop for a souvlaki and a pint, we crossed the border into Turkey on Wednesday. We had a day off to look forward to in Edirne, which was a stroke of luck because the town offered us plenty to do.

My day started innocuously enough at 10am with a clothes shopping trip. I’ve been in the same (knackered) jeans and 3 t-shirts since the start of the trip, and some new clobber will be part of my rehabilitation into normal society when we get to Istanbul. Mercifully that only took 45 minutes.

After a watermelon shisha, or ‘nargile’, followed by kofte and salad, it was time to get stuck in to some local culture. Edirne is home to the 16th century Semiliye Mosque, which has the tallest minarets in Turkey at 70 metres. It was my first time inside a mosque and I’m glad I saved it for this one because it was lovely. Pics below. As a bonus I got handed a large bag of sweets and some perfume just for turning up. Church of England take note: watered-down orange juice is not selling it to me.

Now suitably relaxed and with a gob full of sugar, I left the mosque and immediately spotted a hamam, a traditional Turkish bath. I wasn’t sure what this involved. For some reason I thought of Victorian men being steamed in large wooden boxes. Did that even happen, or had I imagined it? A thick set Turkish man was on hand to enlighten me, but deftly avoided giving me any specifics on the bathing process.

“If it is your first time, you will feel reborn,” he said. Re-birth, apparently, would cost me 60 lira. I could only imagine it costing more in Istanbul and the building I was in was gorgeous (and contemporary to the mosque), so I went for it.

I had a certain sense of déjà vu when he directed me to a changing room and told me to take my clothes off. It’s rare on this trip that I haven’t got naked in the presence of other men. Things started pretty well in Finland; Jim and I had our first naked sauna there in the presence of three gorgeous girls. After that, things went downhill. All the saunas in Finland were single sex and full of old men. Lithuania promised mixed nudist beaches, but a visit was rewarded with more naked old men who were presumably promised the same thing. Roll forward to Slovenia and a nude spa. This time the gender balance was sorted – we had a 50/50 split – but the 30 other bathers were Austrian pensioners over for the weekend. My eyes have yet to recover.

So here we go again, I thought. On the plus side, this time my dignity was protected by a towel and the hamam-er was wearing a t-shirt and shorts. I laid down on a hot marble slab and had some water thrown on me. Suitably drenched, I lay there frying for about 20 minutes. My bather returned, rather ominously without his t-shirt, with a glove made of goat’s hair. I was massaged, then exfoliated good and proper. To prove I was getting my money’s worth, I was shown a handful of crap that had been squeezed out of my pores. Pleasant.

Time to sit up and be bathed. As I was being lathered up and having the knots in my muscles beaten, rather than teased out, I learnt quite a lot about hamam and the pride which the bather takes in his work. He has been doing this job for twenty years, working 11 hour days, six days a week. The reward for him is the knowledge that he can relieve a range of problems from joint aches to chronic pain. His nightmare clients? Turkish oil wrestlers. ‘The size of three men!’ he said, shaking his head ruefully.

More exfoliation, then ‘hydrotherapy’ in the form of progressively colder drenchings with water. Eventually I was wrapped in fresh towels and directed to the main room. Time to slump in a chair, eat some grapes and recover from the whole experience. Rebirth was a strong word, but not necessarily the wrong one to use. I was cleaner than I’ve ever been, relaxed and all my shoulder pain had left me. Not bad for 25 quid. The entire process took an hour and 45 minutes. Thoroughly recommended.

Okay, here are some pictures of Turkey for your viewing pleasure. So far, so awesome. Especially the sign for Burger King, but I can assure you I did not partake. I’m saving that one for Istanbul.

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Climbing and coasting in Rhodope mountains.

To get to Greece and on to Turkey through Southern Bulgaria, you need to pass the Rhodope mountains. We’ve cycled about 350km over these beasties over the past few days!
We’ve had weather ranging from blue sky and sunshine, to rain and thick mist, to freezing cold and snow on the ground. All the way though, there have been some awesome views, friendly locals, challenging climbs and some wicked downhills- switchbacking all the way!
Paid for with sweat, numb fingers and toes, and a long burn; we’ve climbed up to 1,737m high, over 1 mile up. At this height, there was a lot of snow on the ground from the last fall, about a week ago. Sadly (or rather thankfully! 😉 ) We missed out on the snow fall itself:- our slick tyres would have been spinning away uselessly on that!
The endorphin rushes of reaching the top (after climbing uphill for several hours solid), were topped only by the adrenaline rush of fast-freewheel coasts, one stretching out for over 14km ):-)
Sadly, without an IMAX and some suicidal high speed camera work, I can’t get those feelings across to you, my dear reader. I can, however, show you some of the more serene views from along the way:

Fade to blue
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My two mangy mutt companions when I went for a walk around lake Dospat, in the town of the same name.
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Lake Dospat itself.
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An old bridge, now used by the herdsmen, but probably used to be a more common thoroughfare!
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So when did the Scotts bring their bag pipes to Bulgaria?
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Enjoying the view! In winter, this would make a great sled run 🙂
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Highest point we reached in the Rhodopes, 1737m up.
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Map of the region for those like me, with less geographic nous!
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Splat! Here lies Jim; squashed, buried and tomb stoned, all In one swift move. R.I.P
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8001km, lots of hills, 1 landslide, and the return of the sun! :-)

First thing this morning, in the valley between the Belasica mountains in Northern Greece, and the Ograzden mountains in Southern Macedonia I clocked up 8,001km… I missed the 8,000 so that’ll have to do! ;-p
Yesterday’s ride was my favourite so far. Starting in Berovo, Macedonia and ending in Petric, Bulgaria, the first 35km was up hill- but through some beautiful mountain and rural scenery!
After the long climb, came a fantastic downhill, cashing in all that hill credit, down into the valley below.
From the valley itself you see the previously mentioned Belasica mountains to the South. Beautifully snow capped, running alongside the last 50km of the ride, they made for some impressive scenery!
That variety of ride and awesome scenery combined with the return of sunny weather, made for a great days ride 😀
Here’s a clip of riding along the valley. Greece on the right, Bulgaria on the left!

More hills today! In fact, this was the highest I’ve climbed on this trip: 1,463m! We passed several remaining snow patches, apparently left overs from a few days ago. We spent approximately 50km of the ride going uphill. Quite a slog, the uphill part alone took about 5 hours!
At one point it appeared that we may have been scuppered, as a very large rockfall had all but obliterated the road :-@ (see pic of friendly Bulgarian workers who did their best to convince us we’d have to go back down and round another way… Nope!) So over the rockfall we went, with loose stones and earth still coming down. I knew I brought my cycle helmet for something!
The reward for our day of toil was another god sent down hill and more breathtaking views down to Goce Delcev in the valley below! 🙂

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