23rd August – Turkey

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a sign in Serbia!

Fabuloso! We soaked up some atmosphere, and drank çay amid the hustle-bustle. In the afternoon, we ferried across the Bosphorus, and drank coffee, again soaking up the atmosphere; but this time in Asia!  We got out the map to plan our route across the country, and soon a small crowd had gathered around us, non-verbally, but very enthusiastically, recommending places to visit.

We met Emre in the busy main street, after a series of confused phone calls, involving the doorman of a hotel telling him our location.  He walked us up the road to his apartment, stopping at the supermarket to buy some food to break the day’s fast. We lugged the bikes and all the bags up to the fifth floor and immediately jumped in the shower – hooray! All refreshed and happy to be inside four walls for a change, Emre, an engineer who’d studied in New York, and Joel prepared food whilst we chatted about our trip, and Turkey and Ramadan and allsorts. At eight, the call to prayer, the official end of the day’s fast, boomed out from the local mosque and subsequently could be heard from the other mosques in the vicinity, just after the sun had set in the dusty pink sky – absolutely beautiful. Emre gulped down some water (I was seriously impressed that he and others were able to spend a whole day in the summer heat without even a sip of water, but he talked it down and made it sound like nothing), and then brought the food out for us – and what a feast it was! Lentil soup to start, followed by a variety of salads, rice, and some lamb for the boys. All this followed by baklava with tricolour ice-cream – pretty decadent! After filling our bellies (almost to bursting) and chatting for a couple of hours more, we were so sleepy we had to decline Emre’s offer of taking a walk and instead we hit the hay (Emre had given up his bedroom for us, himself sleeping on a mattress in the living room) grateful for such a wonderfully authentic glimpse inside Istanbul life.

The next day, Emre went to work and left us the key, so we were free to come and go as we pleased. Having last night spoken of his previous life (or so it seems!) as a chef , Joel offered to prepare dinner this evening, for Emre and his girlfriend, Burcu – a fellow English teacher. Our first stop was the Iranian embassy, seeking to extend the validity of our Iranian visas; something we weren’t sure was possible, but certainly worth a shot, because otherwise we would only have 2 weeks to cross at least 2000km of (hilly and hot) Turkey. I donned my headscarf as we approached the door, as the embassy is technically Islamic Republic of Iran turf. The clerk we spoke to after about 20 minutes’ wait was incredibly sweet, but told us that regrettably the only option we’d have would be essentially buying another visa. Having already forked out approx. £170 each for visas that were fast approaching their shelf-life, we ummed and ahhed briefly before deciding I.R Iran had already taken enough of our cash – we’d just have to take a bus or train to get there in time. How frustrating. It always seems that visas are the biggest problem of any trip; and the Iranian one had been the biggest (in fact, the only) headache yet, and we hadn’t even reached the country! It better be worth it, we both thought quietly.

After wandering around the old town, sampling some local delights, and exhausting ourselves in the  expansive but fascinating archaeology museum, we headed back across the Bosphorus to grab some supplies for dinner. Joel had wanted to cook something typically British, but after some thought decided all traditional British dishes might be a little heavy-going for the heat of an Istanbul summer evening. In the end he whipped up some creamy dauphinois potatoes (went down a treat, Emre asked for the recipe), more lamb, and a scrummy beetroot/carrot/pomegranate salad (my favourite!) and we laughed and joked as we enjoyed the veritable feast on offer.

We’d cleared up, and out came the map; Emre and Burcu offering us their local knowledge on plausible cycle routes. Hmm, it seemed the route we were planning to take; the direct-line via Ankara, would be mostly motorway; without much for eye-candy (unless you have a particular penchant for the backs of trucks and buses – or clouds of black smoke, of which there’d be plenty…)

The second possibility was to coastal route along the Black Sea, which Emre vetoed, on account of all the mountains. Right, what should we do then, we asked him? His answer: head down the Aegean (west) coast, and along the south coast as far as possible and then stick the bikes on a bus to the Iranian border. It sounded really beautiful, a coastline rich in history, and on hearing of the turquoise, crystal-clear sea and potential for swimming and snorkelling, being a water-baby deprived of coast for so long, Joel decided that this was what he really fancied doing. Ok, I conceded; I guess the whole trip had been my idea and Joel hadn’t really had much input about the route, so I felt it was time to let him take the lead, if we had to get a bus anyway, we might as well ride the most beautiful part. The clincher, however, was the invitation to visit Emre at his family home in Ayvacik, for which, if we set off tomorrow, the timing would be just right to visit his family as it amassed in it’s entirety (for the first time in ten years!) for the celebration of Bayram, the feast at the end of Ramadan. What an opportunity, one not to be missed – later when we told stories of the event, another traveller declared it a story straight out of a Lonely Planet guidebook! – so we graciously accepted and began researching ferries over the Marmara Sea, a neat little escape from the city traffic. We’d catch the 7.30 ferry the next morning, and ride down towards Ҫannakale, take in the ruins of Troy, visit Emre’s family, then Assos, and the ancient abode of the Greek gods: mount Ida.

With the weekend of Bayram fast approaching – tomorrow would be Friday, and all next week would be national holiday – we were concerned about the ferries, and roads generally, being jam-packed as the Istanbul-ites packed up and headed home for the annual family feasting.

Once our dinner had digested enough for us to contemplate moving, the four of us headed out and enjoyed an evening in a vibrant and laid-back hookah bar, one puff of which sufficed for myself and Burca, so while we chatted away about all-things, the boys took a backseat, enjoying light, apple flavour smoke, the ambience, and perhaps the football on the screen behind my head… The waiters busied themselves with deftly whisking around trays of çay with incredible skill, much to my admiration. There didn’t appear to be any alcohol on offer, perhaps as it was Ramadan, although Emre did point out that the boys on the next table were smoking their hookah not through water as is traditional, but through a litre or so of local and lethal liquor; raki. Burcu showed us how to divine the future from the dregs left after a turkish coffee: simply upturn the cup and when it’s dry enough, the pictures and forms reveal your future, open of course to interpretation. I saw a naked woman in Joel’s, and a mountain range in mine. Read what you like into that… 🙂 Maybe a run-in with Athena up mt. Ida? When we returned to the apartment, we had finally made space for dessert, one of Joel’s favourites; stewed plums and ice-cream.

The next day was spent enjoying a much-needed lie-in, and then nipping down the road to get my hair cut, the fastest and cheapest (£3) hair cut i’ve ever had; and not bad at all! Emre and Burcu were out for dinner, as was Emre’s sweet flatmate (whose name i’m ashamed to say, escapes me 😦 sorry), so we had the apartment to ourselves for the evening – what a luxury! We stuck telly on, and then popped into the internet cafe round the corner to update ourselves and look at the route and ferry times.

An early start the next morning, saw us arrive at the ferry port early enough to assure a space, amidst the excitement of the holiday-makers. The crossing was a couple of hours, during which we managed a snooze, before mounting Clem and Arthur once again for the next leg of the journey.

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