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On the road . February 2007 . Greece and Turkey

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go back cycling across the turkish border
Mavi Guesthouse
[website] Istanbul, 17-02-07
To the pearl of the Bosphorus
Alexandroupoli to Istanbul
(4 cycle days; a ride in the back of a truck; *259km; *1962+m)

Alexandroupoli - Greece to Kesan - Turkey (69km; 433m)
Kesan to Inercik (70km; 889m)
nercik to Kinali (80km; 640m)
Kinali to Istanbul (*40km; *35km truck ride; *?m)

* the day before Istanbul our VDO-speedometer packed it in and so, we have estimated the mileage into Istanbul. Unfortunately, we also have no idea how many meters we climbed that day.

Lots of firsts
There's nothing but farmland after we maneuver ourselves through the early morning traffic and out of Alexandroupoli. The side wind blowing from the north east is pretty strong and it is overcast. Every now and again the sun teasingly breaks through the clouds promising a beautiful day. There are roughly 45 kilometres to the border and after a couple of hours of pedalling, we can see the bridge over the River Evros, marking the boundary between Greece and Turkey. This is our first official border and from now on we know there's going to be a barrage of documents and control posts to contend with. At the same time the thought of absorbing new cultures, with customs far from what we are used to, is all quite exciting.

We pass through Greek immigration effortlessly and enter no-mans land, heavily guarded by military. It is goodbye to street signs that look like one of Newton's equations; ragged limestone mountains and in hindsight any promise of warm weather. After crossing the bridge, we are waved on through boom gates into an unattractive, oversized, concrete complex. There is a cash machine, a post office, a place to change money, shops to spend your leftover euro coins in and the chance to buy the odd duty free product.

The cold wind manages to eat through the many layers of clothing, even though the sun is now in full force. We stop for lunch. There are plenty of police roaming around and most can not resist stopping by to ask us where we all are going. Refuelled, we proceed to the gates. French citizens can enter free of charge, but those of Dutch nationality need to pay €10. Strange agreements, but it is better than being an Australian and forking out €15 or Canadians, who are given a completely raw deal and asked to hand over €45.

Ali sprints off next door to purchase the colourful sticker which they very inconveniently place on the last page of our passports. The stamp is then issued and we can move on to the next gate. The guard can't find our visa of course, until we point out that it is at the back. And so, with our very first stamps in our passports, we take our first steps ever into Turkey.

Not more than a hundred metres up the road, we are welcomed by two very savage dogs that sprint across the highway and bark wildly at our legs. A kilometre or so further on and I hear that familiar ping sound that a spoke makes when it breaks. After inspection, it has sure enough snapped and it is on the cassette side. Initially, we try to put a temporary one in, but the break is at the nipple and we can't get the pin head out.

Dreading the whole spoke changing procedure, I first try to cycle on a whopping wobble in my wheel, but as I pedal out onto the road I immediately get a flat and so that puts and end to that plan. There is no other solution, except to get out the cassette removal tool and see if we can remember how to use it. We attract the interest of a couple of locals and they look on while we repair the spoke. Remarkably, it takes less than half an hour, it runs smoothly and not only the locals, but Pierre Yves and Simon are impressed too. It is not the first and nor will it be the last time we praise the genius of the next best thing cassette removal tool by M-gineering.

Another 20 kilometres down the road near Kesan (69km; 433m), we find a sheltered spot on the side of the highway to settle for the night. It gets dark quickly and feels as if we are in for a very cold evening. Just as we are about to cook, a tractor hurriedly makes its way down to where we are camped. The farmer from the house on the hill almost falls out of the truck, he is in such a rush to get out, shake all our hands and welcome us. We all get the impression he is thanking us for our presence on his land, when really should be the other way around. After enquiring where we all come from, he proudly lets us us know that he is a former Yugoslav and offers us food and drink with rudimentary signals. Having plenty of our own supplies, we politely refuse with the same sort of hand language. We bid one another a good night's sleep and he zooms off in his tractor as quickly as he arrived. Such a wonderful greeting on our first night in Turkey is certainly a great sign and hopefully an indication of things to come.

First Snow
We awake to our and our tent's first snow. It is only a light sprinkling and has disappeared before we leave. The road today is either up or down. There are absolutely no horizontal stretches in it at all.. So, to all those people - and there were tonnes of them - who so knowledgeably told us the road into Istanbul is flat and easy: you have never ridden a loaded bicycle there.

It is an incredible amount of work and especially seeing as the winds are hitting us from the front and the side. People seem really friendly: beeping and waving at us constantly. Around lunchtime my back derailleur cable snaps and we stop near Malkara to eat and also fix the problem. A small mini market in the town has delicious fresh bread and cheese and it hardly touches the sides after the morning's cycling workout. We move on as soon as we can. Pierre-Yves is finding the terrain difficult and the problem is heightened by troubles with his derailleur system.

We all decide it is a good idea to try and make it to Inecik (70km; 889m), where we shop in a super little store that sells the bare minimum, but at very cheap prices. It is surprising to see a plentiful supply of alcohol on sale as well. A kilometre out of town, next to a small creek badly polluted by the service station 100 metres before it, we find a spot to camp. It is a little boggy and locating a dry spot is difficult.

Temperatures reach below zero quickly tonight and I have every piece of clean clothing on I can find in my bag. Simon and Pierre-Yves come and huddle in our tent too, which warms up the environment nicely. We mention to the guys that we would like to get to Istanbul - 150 kilometres - in two days, because I have an appointment with a periodontist. We all decide to see how the weather is tomorrow, but there is a possibility that we may go our separate ways. Hunger soon gets the better of us and once the cookers have finished doing their thing, we have filled up on pasta and tomato sauce. the goodnights are said and the tents very firmly zipped up.

More snow and generousity
Around 3am, I wake to hear falling snow. It is ever so dainty in comparison to its wetter companion: the rain. It sounds like fluffy feathered wings lightly flapping against the tent wall. When we venture outside a few hours later, we are surrounded by 5 centimetres of virgin white snowfall; a beautiful sight but very cold. My teeth are still chattering even though I have four layers plus a jacket, short and long bike pants, cutoffs and winter gloves, shoes, a couple of pairs of socks and rain covers, my beanie and my helmet on. It is most definitely, not the fashion statement of the year, but thankfully not the reason that Simon and Pierre-Yves don't join us in taking off early. They have decided to take longer over the trip into Istanbul. It is a little sad leaving without them, but that's how it is travelling. You meet great people and then you have to leave; besides we've planned to catch up in Istanbul on Thursday, next to the tourist office in Sultanahmet at 12 noon.

After the goodbyes, kisses and hugs, we brave today's elements and leave in light snowfall. As we are climbing to a peak of roughly 400 metres, it falls harder and I'm forever wiping greasy sludge from my glasses. Someone needs to invent wipers for glasses. The roads are relatively free of traffic, as it is Sunday. A few dogs make it a little unpleasant on occasions. We reach the top and then we can almost freewheel to whole way into Tekirdag, though we have to take it pretty slow due to the slippery, ill-maintained roads and lack of brakes.

Tekirdag is not a particularly beautiful place and there's a pungent odour of fuel which burns your nostrils. At a guess, it is from all the oil heaters. The town itself is quite big and it takes us a while to get out of the suburban sprawl. We stop at a petrol station cafe on the outskirts for a well earned double shot of turkish coffee. It is delicious as is the warm restaurant and always difficult to drag yourself away from these environments and venture back out into the cold.

Pedalling madly down the highway shoulder soon warms us up and we continue on hoping to find somewhere suitable to pitch the tent. Unfortunately, since Tekirdag, the surroundings have been completely built-up. We stop just before Silivri and turn off to a group of guarded complexes in Kinali (80km;640m). There is a vacant plot of land that would suit as a camping spot for one night and we ask a man close by if it is possible. He speaks German, which makes it dead easy and before we know it, we not only have permission to camp, but alternative arrangements are made and we are ushered off to the beachfront cafeteria. It is closed for the winter, but the lights and gas burner work, there are plenty of tables and chairs and even better, a stack of sturdy deck chairs perfect for sleeping on. We thank Recep and Ali for their generosity and begin immediately to set up the beds, peel off our mud-covered clothing and cook a hot meal. It turns out to be another icy cold night, but we both sleep really comfortably and like logs.

fishing in the heart of IstanbulThe pearl of the Bosphorus
Braced for the trip into Istanbul (±35km truck; ±40km cycling), we leave our overnight haven, just as it starts snowing again. More mud is added to our filthy bike gear as we slosh through the waterlogged dirt tracks surrounding the village. It is nothing though, compared to the grimy spray we receive, once we are on the highway. I find myself praying to whoever might be listening that I will make it into Istanbul alive. This is largest capital we have attempted to date and the weather is terrible. The Monday morning traffic is not at all forgiving either and they whiz past in dangerously close proximity. What little shoulder that does exist, is mostly gravel and now piled high with snow. There is no other alternative, than to ride on the white line.

An overloaded van stops and the driver signals that the road ahead is blocked due to the recent snowfall. His reports are confirmed as we watch the ploughs head further up the highway. So, when a small van stops a kilometre further on with enough room for us and our bikes in the back, we need no persuading to jump in. It is not what you would call comfortable, but it is luxury compared to riding the road. I'm so relieved, I can't stop smiling and we joke about being let out right in front of the Aya Sofya, close to today's planned destination.

But that would be the ending to a fairytale story and this account couldn't be farther from such simplicity. Although grateful for knocking 35 kilometres or so off our wintry journey, we are a little bewildered when left at the edge of a ten plus lane highway, not knowing the dickens where we are. We decide going with the flow is the only option, especially, if we want to stay alive. It proves to be the right way and we cause a bit of a stir as we traverse our way into Istanbul. Some drivers are kind and some are down right ?#@*#!s. Basic instinct takes over during a very close side swipe and I follow the person causing the incident into a petrol station. He might not have been able to speak English, but I'm pretty sure he got my message and will look at cyclists in a completely different light from now on.

To my relief, we survive all the swerving in and out of buses, cars, trucks, taxis and motorcycles. We also make it in one piece crossing the two lane, bumper-to-bumper streaming highway entrances. The first sighting of a traffic light sets my mind at ease. It means we are off the main arterial road pandemonium and close to our target. To the amusement of the car cleaning guys, we first pull off into their garage and ask if they'll give us, our bikes and luggage a clean down with the high pressure hose. Of course, it's no problem at all and they probably took great delight in talking about the incident with friends or family for the next week. Loaded cyclists tend to have that affect on people.

Mavi Guesthouse is open and rates are exceptionally good. Although it could do with a new lick of paint, better hot water system and a women's touch to brighten up the place, you can't overlook the fact that it is one of the friendliest and trustworthy atmospheres you might ever experience in a guesthouse. Anything you want to know, want to see, need to find, they are more than happy to help you with. And there is no extra cost involved.

When we arrive we learn that Pierre Yves and Simone are already here. Later that night, they tell us they cycled just up the road to the Bus Station and got on a bus. Dirty cheats!

A place to buy everything
Istanbul is just enormously huge. It begins way before we got out of the van, in what we later that afternoon work out is, Gürpinar. This sprawling metropolis is a mixture of everything you can possibly think of and on first sight there is no apparent order to it either. Later in the week, we discover that the city is divided into quite definite sections: there is an area to buy kitchenware; somewhere that has streets brimming with textiles and all the appropriate accessories; a region that stocks every conceivable electronic good on the market; there is handyman alley; sporting lane and just about any other subdivision of consumer goods you can think of. You might need to ask a local where to go, but I think you can just about everything here.

Everything that is, besides the little adjustable screws on a back derailleur. But then again you can purchase the whole system for the meagre sum of five euros in Asli Bisiklet, a great little bike shop with plenty of spare parts of all qualities and makes. It is not the first shop we enter and it pays to shop around. These guys have very reasonable prices though and are super friendly, enjoy a laugh, unlike the rip-off rates and standoffish attitudes we experienced from some their neighbouring competitors.

The day after our arrival, we embark on the mission of obtaining our Iranian visa. It is a process of enormous formality. You require two pass photo's; you need to fill in the right form which the embassy will give you; photocopy this and both the front page and the page with your Turkish visa from your passport; pay €50 into the bank directly across the road and add the copies of this transaction to rest of the paperwork which must be placed inside a newly purchased plastic sleeve. You then have to wait a minimum of ten days for the outcome.

We fill in this time by visiting the usual tourist sights: Aya Sofya, The Blue Mosque, Taksim, The Egyptian and Grand Bazaars, Topkapi Palace, The Turkish and Islamic Art Museum and of course enjoying the ambience, sipping on a beer & munching on a pide while chatting with other travellers in the guesthouse common room. Time passes quick enough and the Monday, when we need to return, comes around. I find myself standing at the counter, heart racing, like I'm about to sit a make-or-break exam. The man thumbs through some documents in a folder, checks one page with our passports and tells us to come back tomorrow. We are in; but we still don't know for how many days. Another surprise for us tomorrow I guess.

turkish dried fruit and vegetables at the marketMavi Guesthouse [website] Istanbul, 26-02-07

It is Monday the 26th of February and our package, containing a new bike rack, still hasn't arrived from the Netherlands. We'll have to stay in Istanbul a bit longer. During one of our strolls through the streets of Sultanahmet, Sonya slips on the pavement. A loud scream follows and a visit to the local Eminönü hospital is inevitable. Conclusion is that Son has fractured her right ankle and it is put in a cast for two to three weeks...

Mavi Guesthouse [website] Istanbul, 04-03-07
Tomorrow never comes
Well, the tomorrow from my last update is almost two weeks ago now and we are still here in Istanbul. In this time, we get a 30 day visa for Iran; the French guys get 21. Don't ask me why that is, but Simon and Pierre-Yves leave for their journey along the Black Sea a couple of days later. It's quite an emotional goodbye as we have become really good friends. Not only the common cycling interest has strengthened this bond but the similarity in personality and temperament between Simon and Ali, and Pierre-Yves and me. When Pierre-Yves was having trouble with the distances and terrain we were travelling, it hit home that I wasn't so weak after all. This had a two-fold effect: not only was my diminishing confidence in my pedalling capacity boosted sky-high, but Ali saw my riding ability in a whole new light. Both results were greatly appreciated.

Needless to say, there are a few teary eyes and lumps in throats as they cycle away along the cobbled street and completely out of sight. We intend to keep in touch and maybe we'll meet at the Iranian border. Benjamin and Natalia, a very cool Chilean couple, returning home from their one year of travel adventure, are also saying goodbye, so Mavi Guesthouse will seem a little empty. That doesn't last too long though and as the week draws nearer the weekend, voyagers spill in from all corners of the globe and the common room is, once again, alive with the chatter of excited travellers. And travellers are generally full of interesting stories and anecdotes. The only tiring thing about this is your own tale; although new for the listener it always echoes a resemblance to yesterday's, last week's and last month's dialogue.

We learn that the Tubus rack we are waiting for is stuck in France and has been since the 14th. It is nothing to do with the Turkish post, who everyone - including fellow countrymen - wanted to blame immediately. It is most likely the mistake of TNT Post, who nonchalantly proclaim that "it could take three days or it could take three weeks" to shift from its "ermmm..., don't-know-what-to-do-with-this-one" shelf. After several exasperating phone calls and tracking e-mails, we have no other option than to abandon mission. Our money will be refunded, but now we are at square one again and need to find the gear from other sources. Sometimes the simplest of things seems so overly complicated.

For better, for worse
Still, we have a bit of time up our sleeves, as I have been summoned to inactivity for a few weeks. Cursed pavements in Istanbul! Only a few centimetres difference in levels, coupled with poor light and there I am on the ground beating it with my fist, screaming and crying with an intensity that shocks even me. Having played quite a bit of basketball and squash, I've rolled my ankle plenty of times before, but this time something feels really different and after hobbling back to the guesthouse, I am all for going to the hospital to get it checked out. Seyfi, one of the guys working here, organises a van and accompanies us inside. A true godsend as no-one speaks English. In a very clean and spacious consultation room, the doctor pushes and prods responsively to my yelps, beckons me to the x-ray room where a medic twists and turns the ankle without any remorse what so ever. Ali says they are like that everywhere in the world.

Before I can fully recover from the pain he has caused, he's scurrying most efficiently out of the room to process the negative and I'm left to hop my way back to the consultation room. The x-ray arrives and there is a lot of Turkish flying backwards, forwards and completely over my head. Finally, it's explained: a hairline fracture on the fibula lateral malleolus - that is just a bone in my ankle - and a plaster cast is the only option. The doctor apologises for the heavier, cheaper version of plaster and through our interpreter it is explained that the area we are in is very poor and no-one can afford the lighter stuff, so they don't stock it. So, in true Turkish form, Seyfi takes this information as an opportunity to barter down the price of the cast. Instead of fourty Turkish lira, we pay twenty. Doesn't worry me what it costs or which type of cast it is; just as long as he puts it on correctly. He does and I must say executed in an expert fashion. In hindsight though, I'm sure he's had plenty of practice. The roads and footpaths in Istanbul are an accident just waiting to happen. We pay the grand sum of 65 lira for consultation, x-rays and cast. That's about 37 euros if you are wondering and nearly the equivalent of two days, well-paid work in Turkey.

The first few days are okay: especially seeing as the pain in my ankle immediately subsides, there is no swelling and Ali is waiting on me hand and foot. It is downright frustrating though not being able to go and do what you want to, when you want to do it. I will spare you the details of undertaking the trip upstairs to the shower and toilet. On March 3, I am to take my first walk outside, aided by my recently purchased crutches and Ali's jesting words: one small step for Son, one great step for our world tour. It is painfully tiring trying to hobble on the cobbled streets and I am not amused.

City of Intrigue
But hey, there are worse cities I could have picked to fracture my ankle and worse guesthouses to spend my time resting with an elevated foot. Luckily, we had managed to visit a few of the sights before this happened. Istanbul is a bizarre combination: liberal and conservative, rich and poor, colourful and mundane, modern and incredibly out of date, inspiring and annoying, western and Asian all rolled up together like one of the endlessly persistent salesman's hand-woven carpets.

Drinking tea is an integral part of everyday life and endlessly repeated throughout the day. Should the market price of this consumable ever sky rocket then the whole foundation of Turkish culture could possibly collapse. Luckily, it hasn't and walking around Istanbul, you will be offered copious amounts of this delicious brew. While most offers are genuine, there are still a handful of tyrants waiting to rip you off, so just beware. As a lone woman, roaming the tourist areas will not be hassle-free. The moment you hesitate in step, you will be pounced on by men offering all sorts of unmentionable services and who can unnervingly follow you for hundreds of metres before giving up.

It cannot go by without mentioning some of the delicious Turkish goodies to get your teeth stuck into. Firstly this country is the king of all kings when it comes to biscuits. The scrummiest crunchy covered morsels filled with oozy chocolate, coffee, hazelnut or jam fillings. And they are cheap at 40 euro cents for the most expensive packet. Sticking to the sweet things: if you are one of those persons that always left the purple-pink wrapped turkish delight in the Roses Family Chocolates box for someone else, then this sugary confectionary, known in Turkey as lokum, is definitely going to take on a whole new meaning. The only advice I can give is to definitely follow that temptation and walk into one of the shops filled with those brightly coloured little squares piled high in glass cases. I recommend going for a freshly boxed assortment. This time though, no-one will be leaving anything for anybody else.

The difference between here and there
One morning's adventures take us out of the guesthouse, up and then down the cobbles, past the Aya Sofya, along the tram line and downtown to Dogubank, a ginormous multi-levelled electronic store. I have been going through my most recent videos since Delphi, Greece and realise the 90% of the sound is completely ruined with static. The lapel microphone needs the wires re-soldered.

We first purchase a new battery for my camera at a rock bottom price from a really nice old man that I bought mini dv tapes from a couple of weeks back. I ask him where I can fix my mike. Number 32 is punched into the calculator and a finger points further up the corridor. "Shop, shop" he says and we work our way along until we find store number thirty-two. We are then led back towards the mac shop, two doors down. Here, a soldering iron is pulled out of a cupboard behind the counter and promptly plugged in to heat up.

"Sit, sit", we are told in sign language and offered a cup of çay [tea], which is ordered over the phone. The man meticulously goes about soldering the wires back in place. I test the microphone and it works perfectly. We pass most of the time by showing the shop-owner our web site, while we wait for the çay to arrive in the traditional tulip-shaped glasses. We get a lot of admiring ooh's and aah's and even the tea man is called over to appreciate our web page. We gesture that we must leave and by rubbing my forefinger and thumb together, inquire how much the repair is. "Free, free," replies the man.

This is the second time this piece of equipment has had repairs done to it. First in Bordeaux and now here in Istanbul and each time at no cost. While I am not expecting people to do things for free, I can't help but think back to my experience in a very well known electronic shop in the city I used to live in. When I asked if they could solder the wires back on, I was told that they don't bother with such menial tasks and without so much of a suggestion as to where I could get the job done, I found myself staring at someone's back and listening to the continuation of the conversation, I had so inconveniently interrupted. "Tisk, tisk".

Thinking back to that incident also reminds me exactly how long ago that all was and how different life is now. We have now been seven months on the road and both excited about opening a brand new chapter in our tour. Unfortunately, heading through Turkey and towards the east of the country will be rushed more than we had planned due to my fractured ankle. It also means a few bus trips have now been jotted down on the itinerary. Where exactly, we haven't yet decided. It all hangs on my ankle's performance and that is still a complete mystery at this stage.

All that is certain, is we need to reach the Iranian border by the end of April, before our Turkish visas run out. Central Asia has this charm about it despite my total lack of knowledge of the life, customs and terrain. The uncertainly keeps the attraction of this region well and truly aflame and I'm sure our travels will not be a disappointment. Whatever we get dished up while cycle touring, is usually an adventure. An inspiring; eye-opening and unique adventure at that.

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