Sunday, 28 July 2013

Istanbul or Bust - Crossing Continents




New readers might want to begin here.

The road from Malko Tarnovo to the border post was questionable even by Bulgarian standards, mostly due to ongoing roadworks that had left it without a surface. The weather on the north side of the mountains had closed in and it wasn't a pleasant ride. But it was an important one, because this would see us leave Bulgaria and with it the EU. On the other side we'd be in Turkey.

Nearly there

This was both an optional extra - getting to the Black Sea had felt like enough to justify the trip - and the whole point of the journey. Turkey means Istanbul, and that's where Europe meets Asia. Getting across one continent is an achievement of some kind, getting to another one is another matter entirely.

There was a bit of a queue to get out of Bulgaria - leaving the EU means leaving the customs union, so vehicles were being inspected, but as usual nobody had any interest in the bikes so after a quick glance at our passports we were free to go. A hundred yards later we passed the signs that indicated we'd left Bulgaria, and shortly after that we saw the ones marking our entry to Turkey.

Getting in to Turkey is a bit more hassle than getting in and out of other countries in or adjoining Europe. Partly because we had to buy a visa, but this was a reasonably simple process. The main hassle was going to be the bikes. For most of Europe this is no problem, but for Turkey the only way to take a vehicle into the country temporarily is to import it. This results in a stamp on your passport linked to an entry on a database that says what the vehicle was, and if you try to leave the country without the vehicle you're then subject to import duty. On a ten grand bike that adds up, so we needed to do things carefully to avoid any trouble later.

Turkish bureaucracy

The border post at Malko Tarnovo comes in two parts, and we pulled up outside the first one to see what was what. Inside, we found a number of windows, and had no idea where to start. A bit of lateral thinking suggested that starting at one end and finishing at the other might be a good idea, and the visa window looked like the right place to start. 15 Euros later I had a sticker in my passport and after handing over my passport at the window labelled Polis I had an entry stamp to match. Next up was a window marked with something about customs procedures for vehicles - there wasn't much English around but the little on offer was useful - where I handed over my licence, passport, green card and V5 to a confused looking woman who didn't seem entirely sure what to do with any of it. After some time, and a lot of pointing at bits of info on the V5 to help her out, I had another stamp in my passport and was told to go to the next window for customs. The chap at the customs desk couldn't have looked less interested if he'd tried, and gave me a bored look while putting a third stamp in my passport before waving me away.

Looking back at the Turkish border

Once the others had been through the same process we grabbed a quick coffee and then headed back to the bikes to get moving. A hundred yards or so later we got to a barrier which marked the border proper, but once the chap in the booth had entered our vehicle registrations onto the system and (presumably) checked they matched the details we'd given back at the main building, we were on our way.

The contrast between the Bulgarian and Turkish sides of the border couldn't have been more marked. Whereas the road we'd come up had been pretty knackered, and the weather dismal, the ride down the Turkish side was in bright sunshine on a deserted four lane dual carriageway. There was an immediate sense that we'd entered a wealthier country and that feeling lasted until we got back to Bulgaria a few days later.

Our first challenge in Turkey was going to be getting stickers for the toll road to Istanbul. The toll system has changed a couple of times in the last few years, and the latest version involves a transponder linked to an account that's automatically charged when you use a toll road. This includes some motorways, and both bridges crossing the Bosphorus, the stretch of water between the sea of Marmara and the Black Sea which separates Europe from Asia. The toll only applies when crossing the bridges from Europe to Asia, and not the other way round, but since we were intending to make it a round trip this was something we were going to have to sort out. Unfortunately, the previous version of the toll system had ceased to function a few months before we were there, and the changes were so recent that nobody seemed to know quite how the new system worked. We'd been told you could buy a transponder at a post office, so we headed to the nearest town after the border, Kirklareli.

Destination in sight

As we rode into town, the contrast with Bulgaria continued. There was a kind of hustle and bustle, and a level of commerce, that we hadn't seen since Hungary. It felt like a modern country, even a western one, but at the same time felt completely different. Simon and I went to the post office and within minutes realised it was going to be a non-starter - we had a number which put us 60th in the queue and it didn't feel like we were going to have much luck without a basic grasp of the local language. Back at the bikes, Steve was convinced that the whole thing about toll roads must be bollocks and reckoned that when we got to the motorway there'd be somewhere to buy a transponder, so rather than argue we headed on down to the main road to Istanbul.

At the junction it was pretty clear that not only did the tolls apply - there were massive signs over the entry gates and when a car went through a siren went off - but there were no booths anywhere to be seen, just a control building set back from the road. After a quick debate about the merits of running the gauntlet with Turkish traffic police, we decided to see what the non-toll road was like. This turned out to be a big, well surfaced dual carriageway running all the way from the border to the centre of Istanbul, so we decided to leave the toll problem to the following day and just head for our hotel.

Every country seems to have its own approach to selling petrol, and Turkey was no exception. Generally, around Europe anyway, the pumps are either self-service or attended but even at the attended ones they're reasonably happy for you to serve yourself, especially if there are are more vehicles needing fuel than attendants to dispense it. In Turkey it's a bit different - when you roll up the attendants all run to a pump and beckon you their way, as if there's a competition. Then they fill up for you and give you a little receipt which you take to the cashier. Once you've paid the cashier gives you an extra receipt which you have to hand to the attendant, and then you're OK to leave. All rather convoluted, but I'm guessing it's intended to stop people filling up without paying, and apart from the language barrier it was no big hassle.

We'd seen some mad things on roads since we entered eastern Europe. Cows, horses, men with scythes, packs of wild dogs, chickens running everywhere, but Turkey topped the lot. Pedestrians would vault over the central reservation and run across the road between vehicles. Cars and bikes wanting to turn across would drive down into the ditch in the middle and back up onto the opposite side . Riding down the dual carriageway we saw a horse and cart in front of us. In the fast lane. Going the wrong way. Soon after, I looked to one side and saw a shepherd driving a flock of sheep through a petrol station forecourt. Modern yet completely foreign, it's a country of contrasts.

About 30 miles from Istanbul the gaps between towns seemed to end and the traffic got steadily heavier. About 15 miles out the conurbation started and the queue began. Because we were going into town, and it was Friday evening, the queue was mostly to get out of the city, and traffic in was reasonably free flowing until we got into the city centre, stopping occasionally around junctions but not as bad as we'd feared. I'd expected the traffic in Istanbul to be deadly, but was relieved to find it was no worse than London. Better, mostly, in that everyone indicated and seemed aware of what was around them, rather than being in their own little bubble as seems so common at home. If anything, rush hour in Istanbul was much like rush hour in London, but a bit safer. I think Mark found it a bit more of a challenge, being used to the empty hills and valleys of north Wales, but for me it was reminiscent of what my daily commute would be like if every other vehicle on the road was an unlicensed minicab and there were thousands of them.

Before too long we were off the main artery and a couple of hundred very slow yards later we were parked up outside our hotel, the Holiday Inn Istanbul City. We'd decided to treat ourselves a bit, and find a hotel with off-street parking for the weekend. As I checked in, the chap behind the counter asked where we'd come from. I said London. He then asked how long we'd been on the road. When I said seven days, he looked at me like I was crazy. This happened a lot, we got used to it, and I'd be lying if I said it wasn't hugely gratifying each and every time.

Once we'd locked the bikes up and unloaded, the porter took our huge pile of luggage (tank bag, panniers and topbox each, plus riding gear and sundry crap) up to our rooms. Having shared rooms with Steve all the way down, our keys went in the metaphorical bowl and now it was time for me to share with Mark. It'd mean a bit less snoring (like I can talk) but a few more night terrors. The riding was over for a bit, it was time to act like regular tourists.

First thing, as always was to score a couple of beers, but we were in a hotel in a big city so prices were rather higher than they had been over most of the previous week. Next up was laundry: luggage space was at a premium, so I'd only packed enough to see me to Istanbul. I was going to have to wash everything there and hope it dried in time for the journey back. I could have used the hotel's laundry service, but at their prices it would have been cheaper to bin the lot and buy new clothes for the ride home. So the room was converted into a makeshift laundry, complete with multiple washing lines, which doubled as a handy trap for anyone trying to walk across the room.

Knife fight in the Turkish laundry

Once everyone had got settled, we met up in the bar and went to find something for dinner. We were in Turkey, so that meant a kebab, and we were us, so it also meant beer. Being an Islamic country, secular or not, most places doing food don't do beer, but we were lucky enough to find a pub doing pretty decent food. And brain. I don't know what it was the brain from, but it would have been rude not to at least give it a go. If you imagine what you think brain tastes like, and what texture it has, then you're probably bang on the money. Bland, slightly greasy blancmange, I'm happy to have tried it, but I'll be even happier if I never try it again as long as I live. The kebabs were spot on though, and the beer was cold and plentiful. A fine way to round off a successful mission.

Steve plays Trout Mask Replica

The next day was our first rest day, but we only had two days in Istanbul before starting the journey home and we had a list of things to do. First on the list was working out how to get across the water to Asia. Buying a transponder for the toll bridge was out of the question, it being Saturday. Crossing without paying was an option, as was trying to settle up afterwards, but both posed risks for getting out of the country on Monday, so our only option was a ferry. Steve asked around at a foot ferry terminal near the Galata bridge and soon we knew what we had to do - there was a ferry from Sirkeci to Harem which would cost us 4 lira, or just over a quid. That problem solved, we went for lunch.


Beer and mosque, they way it ought to be

It may not even have been noon, but we didn't let that get in the way of tucking away two kilos of red snapper and a couple of pints of lager at a restaurant on the bridge. Feeling full, we went to tick off the second item on our list: sightseeing. Since we were in the Fatih district we went for a wander through the bazaar to pick up a few souvenirs.


Grand? It's bloody enormous!

The Grand Bazaar is absolutely enormous, with the shopping streets extending far beyond the walls of the covered market itself. Within the walls, the market's organised into areas specialising in certain things, and as we walked further up the hill we came into the antiques area. This was a treasure trove of random tat, from carpets to lamps to antique guns and everything in between. One highlight was a shop selling nothing but gramophones and music to play on them, the sound from which carried right down the street. Simon and I each picked up another fridge magnet and a little metal oil lamp, which seemed the least tacky option.

A One Direction free zone

After the bazaar we dealt with the next item on our list: getting a shave. We'd been on the road a week and we were all looking a bit scruffy. Three quid each bought Simon and me a shave from a burly Turkish barber. The bit where he used a bic lighter to burn the hair off my ears was unexpected, but I felt a lot fresher once I'd escaped, and we headed off to finish our list. That was the Sultan Ahmet Mosque, also known as the Blue Mosque. It seemed a shame to come all the way to an Islamic country and not nip inside a mosque while we were there, but it was time for prayers and after hanging about for a bit we decided to go and get a pint while we waited. The chap whose restaurant we picked knew what he was up to and shortly after bringing our beers he brought a massive plate of chips and a couple of bottles of ketchup. Sure enough, one pint turned into two, and two turned into three, before we wandered off past the Hagia Sofia to find a taxi back to the hotel.

The meal that evening was much the same affair as the night before. We couldn't find anywhere doing both beer and meat, so we picked a place called Iskender and ordered the house dish. Large, with extra meat. There were tables outside, one set by the building and the other set by the kerb, and we sat outside stuffing our faces with doner meat until we were barely able to move. It was a great place to sit and watch the world go by, as the gap between the tables was the main pavement for pedestrians. Not just pedestrians though - bikes in Istanbul tend to have their reg plates removed and free from the constraints of the law they take every gap in sight, whether it's between cars on the road or tables on the pavement. It's not just the public either, more than once we had to lean in a bit as a police bike, two up, with the rider and passenger wearing tshirts, zipped past between the tables.

Feeling full, we walked to a bar on the way back to the hotel. Not the nicest bar in the world, the atmosphere had a definite air of, well, urinals. Ones that hadn't been cleaned in a while. Maybe never. We quickly finished our pints and headed back towards the hotel. Or, at least, Simon and Steve did, while Mark and I popped into another pub to see if it was any better. It wasn't.

Europe to Asia and back in 3 minutes

Sunday began reasonably early, as we had a proper objective for the day: ride our bikes to Asia. This was the end goal, the reason we'd come all this way, and we were about to achieve it. With a minimum of fuss we rode down to the ferry terminal, paid our 4 lira and joined the queue for the boat. Then I remembered I'd seen a separate area the previous day, marked for bikes, so we jumped the queue and waited at the front. Boarding a ferry in Turkey is a bit different to P&O in Dover, with health and safety kept to a bare minimum. Trivial details like waiting for everything to be off the boat before boarding are ignored in the interest of getting on as fast as possible and, frankly, it's a more pleasant system. No need to strap the bike down either, you just stay with it and hold it if it looks like it's going to wobble.

Chatting away on the intercontinental ferry

The journey itself only took about ten minutes, which flew by. As the boat neared the berth at the other side, everyone put their lids back on (if they had one) and fired up their engines. Unloading was, if anything, quicker than loading, with the first bike not quite waiting until the ramp was down before setting off. That got a loud cheer from all of us, and then we followed. We'd done it. We'd ridden to another continent. All we had to do was get back, and that just involved a quick ride through Üsküdar to the nearest bridge. Suddenly I realised we were already on the motorway heading for the bridge itself, and I made a dive for the first exit I saw. This wasn't a perfect plan, as there were clear no-entry signs either side of the sliproad and a sign underneath each that clearly said something about the police. Still, nothing ventured, etc, and it turned out to just be a road leading to a bus station. A few quick photos, while puzzled locals looked on, and we were on our way back to the hotel.

Europe, from a distance

We had very little to do for the rest of the afternoon, so did what came naturally: we went back to the pub. The smell of urinals had cleared a bit, and after a few pleasant pints we were ready for a snooze, so went back to the hotel to relax a bit and get packed. Nothing ever seems to quite fit back in luggage as easily as it came out, and it took a while, but eventually the deed was done and it was time to go and find some dinner. We headed back to pub and went large on kebabs until it was time for bed. We'd agreed a very early start in the morning, meeting before 7am, and the next day was going to be a long one.

While in Istanbul I tried to sum up what the last few days had been like. I'll quote here:
The bike's been perfect. The chain's a bit slack (after 2000+ miles in a week), but other than that it's been absolutely phenomenal. And Bulgaria... god, Bulgaria. I had visions of gangsters, cops wanting bribes, Soviet-era tower blocks, terrible roads and just generally a complete shithole. But it's been awesome, arguably better than Romania, which was everything I thought it'd be and everything I didn't. Bulgaria has just been everything I didn't. Completely confounded my expectations and taught me not to believe shit I read on the Internet.
Getting to Istanbul was different to getting to the Black Sea. The sense of achievement was there, but the road signs just pointed to places that were still ahead. Ankara, in particular. And beyond Ankara would be Iraq, Syria, Armenia, Iran, Georgia. Proper foreign, and a whole other level of challenge.
I'm a miserable bastard most of the time, not sad, but quite curmudgeonly. But this trip has made me glad to be alive.
Much to my surprise, we were on the road not long after 7 and the ride out of Istanbul proved to be easier than the ride in. The queue of stationary traffic on the other carriageway stretched even further than it had on Friday evening, but our side was free flowing and the decision to leave early seemed to have been a good one. We were heading home, and that meant taking the dual carriageway all the way to Edirne on the Bulgarian border. The journey was uneventful, with more of the same low-grade local madness on the road to keep us entertained.

At Edirne we had a choice: there were signs to Bulgaria, where we needed to go, or to Yunanistan, where we didn't. Taking a quick detour into Greece would hardly add any time to our journey but would let us add another country to the list, so we took a left and headed along the cobbled road to the sleepy border post at Vissa. This was a rather charming little spot with a little garden and some shade for us to hide in while Turkish customs went through every bit of luggage on Mark's bike. Either he was picked at random or his Welsh V5 marked him out as a troublemaker, but either way we were free to leave the country with our bikes and make a brief foray back into the EU.

Turkey was behind us, we'd achieved our ultimate goal, and it'd been a hoot.

Read on here.

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