Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Istanbul - the birth of a new "plan"

I knew I'd been here two long when Ellen (from GARP and Istanbul Pt1) returned to the Big Apple. She had managed to tour vast amounts of Turkey in the time it took me to return to “the office”. At this time I also met Kaia and Anthony (fellow Brisbanians on a European tour). A few more mellow nights with beer on the roof terrace and in the local bars.

I used these days to do some research about my route. I had always wanted to wait until Iran said “yes” until I look any further ahead. I realise now that more pre-organisation is required, or atleast research. I don't think this is the case the world throughout, but it seems to be so for Central Asia. Having been given the all clear I was then fully able to worry about how I'm going to deal with the nasty winter. Kyrgyzstan has recorded winter temperatures of -35 Celsius. My current sleeping bag is rated at +2 to +20 (comfort range). No calculations were necessary for me to deduce that this equals a “dead Jimmy”. Thus I decided to re-evaluate my plans and kit list.

I expect my fellow hostellers were pissed off with my “I don't know where to go” sulky whinings which were frequent during this period. It continued so for some days as I sat tucked behind my laptop trying to get my head around the visa/climate/boarder minefield that is “The Stans”

I finally got to some sort of a plan...I think. Though things have changed a little – here goes:

I now intend to enter Iran as late as my visa will allow (15th Jan). Making friends with the snowflakes along the way. I will attempt to extend my visa once there so that I can do some sightseeing, rather than just blitz through the whole country.

From there I hope to get a transit visa for Turkmenistan – actually I'd like a longer stay, but they appear to be miserable fuckers and so all I'm likely to get is a 5-7 day transit visa. Even this is only possible if Uzbekistan grant me a tourist visa (which I am applying for here in Istanbul). 5-7 days is probably not enough to cross the country, given the state of the roads, but I'll worry about that when I'm there.

Then from Uzbekistan, depending on boarders/snow, I'll either go to Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan or Tajikistan and onward to China. Then if China will “play ball” regarding visas, I'll follow the Great Wall East. From there, who knows...Helluva way to go until I'm there, so I'll worry about it then.

India, it seems, shall elude me on this particular adventure. It may have seemed to many as if India was the focus for this trip, perhaps at some point this was the case. Though for quite some time I've had the growing sensation that the destination is, well, irrelevant. And if I'm moving somewhere, anywhere, I'm happy. So (true to the blog title) I really do have No Particular Place To Go.

Sunday, 14 November 2010

17/10/2010 - (who knows when) Istanbul

I tend to summarise much of my “city breaks” rather than give day-to-day accounts. I will do the same this time, but as my stay is for an unknown duration, they could number quite a few...

First thing Monday morning I go to the Iranian embassy with my reference number. I follow the instructions of the clerk and hand over the required documentation – including a hefty $150. I'm asked to return the following day...As I leave the embassy I allow myself a jiffy of excitement – surely it's going to be harder than this!! They must want to interrogate me or something. Twenty four hours pass...

As my watch beeps 10.00am I'm being frisked by the huge bald guy at the consulate entrance. I'm the only one in the “tourist visa” queue and don't have to wait too long to be seen. The clerk hands me my passport, complete with thirty day tourist visa. YEEEEHAAAA!! Iran has been a very important country to me for some time. I have no idea when my fascination started, or where it came from. I knew it would be one of the visa uncertainties, and would have a strong impact on my route if I was refused. But for now I can continue as planned.

In the hostel I meet Stuart a cycle tourist from Cairns, and Pavel from Melbourne - whos travelling before doing an internship in the Middle East. We have a great night on the roof terrace with a group from Germany – one of whom plays guitar, as does Pavel. One of the girls has an excellent voice and is more than happy to wail all night long. Lots of free style blues about Istnabul.

Many more friendly faces come through the hostel including Jacopo, Myriam, Martina & Aileen, Jun and Jeff.

Pavel buys a Saz (Turkish stringed instrument) from a local shop. Stuart (a man after my own heart) is travelling with a didgeridoo, and I'm on guitar. Jun rips on harmonica and shaky love egg. We take our odd arrangement to a few bars in Sultan Ahment and even manage to record some tunes on Pavel's audio recorder.

The days are pretty uneventful. In the evenings we warm up with wine, raki (Turkish Spirit, like the Greek Uzo) and some jamming. And then we head over to Taxim for some live music. In a bar called Araf we watch some very talented musician playing Turkish tunes. Various arrangements came and went. My favourite was a gypsy band consisting of cajon, drums, guitar, bass, accordion, oud, and clarinet. They churned out great beats as we cut some obscene shapes on the dancefloor. Sadly the live music finishes early and we are kicked out somewhere between three and four in the morning. Unsatisfied with this we buy beer and take the party to the gutter. As we sit drinking a couple approach us.

 “Congratulations guys, you've decided to drink in one of the most dangerous neighbourhoods in the city!” says the girl.

“Is that wine?” We say.

-cue communal wine slugging.

We had seen a few shifty looking characters, along with a few dollops of odd behaviour, but thought nothing of it – any observers may have thought the same about us. We make it home without drama – or atleast we have no recollection of it

It was a great few days with the guys. Although I was sad to see them go, my wallet and liver were perhaps a little relieved...

Friday, 12 November 2010

17/10/2010 Sultankoy - Istanbul (Distance 100km)

The Boss Man looks a little less formidable in his pyjamas this morning as he hands us two mugs of çay. Richard (as with the rest of the world) wakes earlier than I do and fetches two fresh loaves of bread from the bakery. Honey, Nutella and white bread – the breakfast of athletes! We hand back our empty mugs and say goodbye. In navigational terms little about the day ahead will be testing. We simply have to follow one road all the way into the city. Istanbul has a reputation for being a bitch of a city to enter by bicycle. Have already come in from the “easy” North I expect to feel the full fury of Istanbul traffic.

The first town we come to is Silivri. Traffic density is low, and (with it being a main road) the hills are long and mellow. At around one o'clock we begin to look for somewhere to eat. Riding through Buyukçekmeşe the ocean is close to our right flank. We decide to look for a simple lunch and eat on the beach. While parking the bikes outside a general store the cheery owner Hasan comes to greet us. I look at getting the usual bread and tuna while Richard (who fancies something hot) nips around the corner. Richard returns empty handed. Seeing this Hasan gestures that he can have something cooked for us. He ushers us outside, and provides us crates to sit on under the canopy of the shop. He brings us some chilled water to drink and then goes over to my bike, pulls out all the old empty water bottles and throws them away. He opens his fridge and re-stocks me with a fresh supply. A plate of scrambled eggs and meat is brought to us. Then fresh peppers, olives, cheese and fresh bread. As we stuff ourselves silly Hasan has an idea – Turkish generosity now in full flow! We can stay at his tonight and continue to Istanbul in the morning. Sadly, as I have to be at the Iranian embassy in the morning, I have to decline – gutted! As a conciliation prize he gives us two huge bags of food to take with us. The meal is concluded with grapes and then coffees all round. Out of nowhere he produces two Miller Lager baseball caps and two Efes Lager T-shirts. We put them on and sit and chat a while longer – not that we could move if we wanted to, such is our gluttony. We ask to pay but Hasan firmly refuses anything of the sort. We exchange details and he shows us the website of two other cyclists who passed through recently – though they had the good sense to stay the night. I see that one of the guys is from Shrewsbury (not at all far from my home town). We stuff our bikes with the bags of food, shake hands, and say goodbye. Hasan and his friends wave us off as we pedal on down the road. We ride on, trying to get our heads round his epic kindness - much to learn and take home with me...

The closer we get the more the traffic builds. Before we know it we are on the hard shoulder of a four-lane main road. For a brief moment the increased danger is fun – but this soon passes and it becomes tiring. The difficulty arises when lanes feed onto the road from our right. We are forced to stop just before the roads converge and wait for a gap in the traffic. Our soundtrack for this segment of the day is (the almost continuous) horn blowing. I suspect it's no longer meant with the “Welcome to Turkey” tone – as was the case when I entered form Bulgaria. Coupled with swallowing more than our fair share of fumes, we have an uncomfortable thirty minutes. At the nearest opportunity we search out a smaller coastal road. After Ataturk airport there is even a cycle path! Joy of deep joys!

Afternoon approaches evening, the light softens, and the ride becomes very enjoyable. I surf upon the wave of excitement emanating from Richard. Istanbul is a big milestone for him. We ride through a huge park for many kilometers until I reach familiar territory. Once here we sit at the water front for a while and soak it up. Richard goes in search of accommodation and I return to “old faithful” The Big Apple Hostel.

Saturday, 6 November 2010

16/10/2010 Ucmakdere - Sultankoy (Distance 96km)

I heat my porridge while collapsing the tent. The temperatures now resemble the wet days way back in Germany. I get moving early hoping to squeeze the kilometers out of the day. On the way back to the road the resident dog takes an interest in me. “WOOF WOOF WOOF”. I adopt my usual trick of dismounting – even though this dog doesn't even reach my waist. As I begin to walk “WOOF WOOF WOOF” - I expect fido to be all talk and continue walking. I'm proved wrong when I feel a mouth close around my shin – more playful than threatening, or so it felt. The owner, alerted by the barking, called the dog back. No harm done.

The road cuts inland towards the village of Ucmakdere. Nobody stirs as I cycle through. Only the sporadically clucking chickens disturb the silence. I climb out of the village and soon low cloud dominates my view. The new tarmac becomes a muddy track – just as I'd got used to the excellent roads in Turkey. Eight kilometers later I'm still climbing – the clouds briefly part so I can see how far I've climbed. I celebrate with an apple. The climb continues until Işiklar and from then on I have fast cruising all the way down to Tekirdag.
Apologies for the crude link - I'm working on it...

On the entrance to the town I stop at a truck garage. I think twice about topping my water when I take a look at the toilet – and I'm really not the picky type! I do however take the offered çay and chatter with the mechanics. I really want to work harder on my Turkish simply so that all involved can get a little more from the exchange. Though I do maintain that common language is far from critical – people are always pleased when you demonstrate a willingness to learn. They wave me off the forecourt and I try to pick my way through the town. While doing so I chance upon a fellow cyclist, and fellow Englander no less. Richard is from Cambridge and heading towards the Middle East (though with a more Southerly route than myself). He's also headed for Istanbul and so we decide to ride together.

In the afternoon the sun comes out. For the first time in a week my arms are uncovered and my feet are dry. With the combination of sun, company and good roads – the riding couldn't be easier. Over the course of the day my Pedallers Paranoia diminishes and disappears. We look for a camping spot while there's still plenty of light. After probing a campsite for prices (which turn out to be crazy) we turn into a housing estate and head toward the coastline. It looks to be a poor choice, but as we talk over our options at the road side, a car pulls alongside and the window rolls down. The guy - in beanie, duffel coat and glasses looks at us and shrugs...

Slightly odd pause.

We shrug back.

“Çay?” he says.

I explain we'd like somewhere to camp – he gestures we follow him. Sorted!

And so we take our seats in the çay shack and get introduced to the gang. By standards back home a place like this would come up way below par. But honestly – there is nowhere I'd rather be. The equivalent in England (if such a thing exists) would be a “spit and sawdust” locals pub for local people. The walls are not adorned with trendy art work, and there's not a doily in sight – thank fuck! Such establishments are never devoid of characters. In this place the guys seem to rotate between rounds of çay and new faces always appear. My favourite fellow seems to be the Boss Man. His overcoat rests on his shoulders and his fingers are weighted down with gold, his twinkly grey eyes complete the (ever so slightly) Bond Villain look. After three or four glasses my eyeballs feel ready to grow legs and walk out of my skull. We ask once more about camping. Beanie Man (who's name I forgot) leads us to the beach and tells us we can sleep in his friends summerhouse/shed. Before taking his leave he invites us to return to the cafe.

We cook up the rest of my food and Richard's stove and then set-up our sleeping gear. Despite our tiredness we return to the cafe – the thinking, that it would be rude to stand up our new friends. For the next few hours we drink sweet hot chocolate as local come and go from the cafe. We chat and joke with the guys in broken German/Eng-Turkish. We unfold the map on the table. They, as folks everywhere, have their opinion on the good and bad areas within their country. I listen closely to their advice – but maintain that I'd like to go and find out for myself. Richard and I take our leave – both in need of some serious “Z's”. As is so often the case – they insist we do not pay a cent for our drinks.

In the night mozzies appear, despite the cold. We give up on the summerhouse and throw up our tents in defence from the bloodsuckers. Once in my cocoon sleep comes easily.

15/10/2010 Gelibolu - Ucmakdere (Disatnce 93km)

I manage a slightly more respectable start time today – on the road for 09.00am. I hung my clothes on various parts of my bike and tent to dry overnight, but thanks to the persistent rain their moisture content has only increased. I opt for the rock'n'roll “sandals and socks” look, and prey for a rainless day so my boots might dry. I don't have much food for breakfast and so pull into the first garage I pass. There's not much on offer for a cyclist's breakfast – but a few chocolate bars and a coffee should keep me going till lunch.

At Kavakkoy I break off the main road to follow the coast. As it bends East I'm grateful that the head wind start to hit my left side (much more bearable for riding). After the town the road gets very quiet and I'm surrounded by fields and rolling hills. It's a grim, grey day. Mist hangs in the air and blends with the low cloud obscuring most of the scenery. A pair dogs lying in a field to my right hear me pass. I heave on the pedals, but thanks to the slight gradient, I can only manage 25kph. The eighty meters that separated us rapidly disappears and they clear the twelve foot drainage ditch with impressive ease. I give up on out-running them and hop off the bike. So far this tactic has not let me down. I make no eye contact and just push my rig up the road. Fortunately Fido & Lassie are all bark and no bite. After following me up the road for a while they loose interest. I hate admitting defeat – but it does beat getting holes in my leg.

Rounding a curve I see a big lake on my left. From the bank smoke rises from a bonfire. I see what look like wigwams dotting the coastline, and then a couple of huge trucks (maybe amphibious vehicles). Moments later I hear a shout from the trees to my left. I search for the source but see nothing. “Hello hello, how are you?” (“okay where are ya”) I think.

After some seconds I make out eight guys in full cammo sitting in a dug-out. A few more shouts go up and I see perhaps ten clusters of men in similar dug-out's in the trees lining the road side. Many of them smile and wave. I manage a quick exchange with one guy. He guestures that they are Army...that explains it then! I really want to whip out my camera but suspect that could go horribly wrong. I move on – quite chuffed with myself that I managed to interrupt some sort of training exercise...atleast I hope that's all it was.

For several hours I steadily gain altitude. After the village of Yenikoy I begin to descend. I know the the next town of Şarkoy is on the coast, from my current position it looks as though I'll be heading downhill all the way. My mornings riding has been somewhat sedate – it's nice pick up the pace. Thanks to assistance from gravity the eight kilometers disappears very quickly.

I stop briefly in Şarkoy for food. An English speaking women from Istanbul stops for a chat – apparently this area doesn't see many tourists – even less on bicycles. There's not much to see and so I continue on down the coast. The sky is grey but thankfully no rain so far. Cycling right next to the sea is great. There are many tempting campspots but with atleast four hours of remaining light I can't bring myself to stop. At a garage in Mürefte I stop for water. A guy approaches to ask my intentions for the day. He lives about ten kilometers up the road in a village called Hoşköy. He tells me he is a wine maker and invites me to visit him for a drink.

There nothing like the promise of some company (not to mention some good wine) to raise my enthusiasm. I find his place with little difficulty – as he said “ right on the main street by the harbour”. The rain and wind have picked up so I'm glad of the temporary shelter. I get a tour of the factory and then sample a few from the selection, and afterwards a tour of the vineyards. I'm disappointed to hear, had I been here a month earlier I could have volunteered for board and food.

I'm beginning to learn that such interactions often present an opportunity for a place to sleep. This time is no exception. I ask the question, a phone-call is made, and I have free admittance to a nice little campsite eight kilometers up the road. I empty my glass and say goodbye. After such a pleasant few hours it's tough to get back on the bike. Once back on the exposed coastline my (now relaxed and cooled) body feels the full bite of the icey wind. The road is cut dramatically into the cliff face – apparently with little regard to the potential for falling rocks (it appears as long as a sign warns of the danger, nothing more need be done).

I arrive at the tiny campsite (which is closed to all but me) and I'm handed a warm coffee. It's a great spot – I think with a running jump I could make it form the camping area and land in the Marmara Sea. I can see this place being popular in high season. The owner (who I figure is in his sixties) opens the kitchen and sits with me as I prepare and eat my dinner. He surveys his crossword through Bottle-Bottom spectacles while I noisily slurp my spaghetti. I've found that due to spending so much time alone, my eating (amongst other things) loses some "finesse". By the time I return home I may well be reduced to communicating through animalistic grunts and eating with my fingers - normal constuction site life then!  I pitch my tent in the dark and read under the porch light for an hour before hitting the sack.