IT’S easy to make assumptions about Turkey’s biggest boldest and brassiest city.
For starters it houses 15 million people, secondly it plays host to one of the east’s biggest grand bazaars and lastly it’s neatly divided by a river with one side claiming it’s the “west” and the other the “asian” side. In my head I was gearing up to face a super sized culture shock of too many people, too many markets and too many mosques but while the epic population will have you sweating, swearing and diving wildly to the side while attempting to cross a pedestrian street it’s a city that seems to refuse all labels.
Just hours out from reaching Istanbul we faced our first big decision – entering the city by bike and running the gauntlet of some of the hairiest traffic you’ll find on the European continent or taking the chicken’s way out and jumping on public transport.
We chose the latter and it was while cruising down a traffic choke highway sipping on a cold drink and a pastry that we encountered our first big surprise. Istanbul (and Turkish for that matter) public transport rocks.
From the outskirts of the city we jumped on the metro which (to the disgust of our fellow commuters) allows bicycles during off peak hours and further to our amazement it was clean, easy to understand and – with an Istanbul card – cheap (around 2 lira or $1 AU a trip).
We checked into our cheap and cheerful hostel filled with some of the most fascinating travellers we’d met so far and lapped up the rainbow vibes while pondering the next week. Istanbul cannot be ticked off the list in a couple of days and we’d allowed at least five but with a huge list of chores to get done before heading east, a huge list of sights to see and an even bigger list of fellow travellers to chin wag with over hair raising Turkish coffee it was clear we’d woefully underestimated the real time required.
Most bike tourers reach major cities in varying states of sweaty fatigue and spend their first 24 hours eating, sleeping, reading, chatting and just soaking up the wonderful sensation of not peddling.
We stayed true to form and ventured out just a couple of times to buy 0.75 AU kebabs while chatting to our dorm buddies and mulling over vague “to do” lists. On day two we still felt incredibly tired but in a show of half hearted enthusiasm began the painful process of visa applications while taking a quick trip out of the hostel to encounter our second pleasant surprise for the unsuspecting – Istanbul’s shopping scene. Cheap family stores and hawkers wheeling loaded up wagons around the tourist traps squeezed pitifully around high end fashion outlets, jewellery stores, camping shops and even English language cinemas.
From Taksim square (on the “European” side) you can meander down Istiklal Cd and find the full gamut including crafty local ice-cream sellers who put on a show in colourful stalls (be careful when you buy a cone because they’ll put your money in the tip jar and then insist you still owe them the cash for the ice-cream) in between gleaming GAP stores and super sized Starbucks filled with immaculately dressed Turks. Down side streets is where you’ll find the cheap kebab stalls with prices starting from 2 TKL ($1 AU) for a meat and salad filled sandwich and small bakeries loaded with bagels, cheese stuffed borek and huge loaves of fluffy white bread that’s sliced up by the bucket to accompany the curries and soups served from industrial containers in the street food stalls.
It’s here we got a taste for what Istanbul food is all about and while the proud countryside Turks will claim the ayran (salty yoghurt drink accompanying most meals) is a cheap, tasteless version of what their home village serves up – we were chuffed.
And it was a good thing too. Delicious, cheap food was about the only thing to placate our horror at the convoluted and downright expensive visa process. We knew from the outset that Iran would particularly prove a challenge (it’s almost impossible for Americans, Canadians and the British to undertake a semi independent tour there) but what we’d woefully underestimated was the cost. Some quick research revealed visa “assistance” companies were the easiest way to secure your 30 day Iranian pass but after fellow bike traveller Emma (from Denmark) visited the Iranian embassy of Istanbul we realised it was in fact the only way.
Emma, in a fit to save money, was hoping to cut out the middle man but she was blatantly told there was no way she could apply through the embassy and would in fact have to pay a company to provide a LOI (Letter of Invitation) which she would then take to the embassy before forking out for the actual visa.
After much deliberation we chose Touran Zamin and then paid a cringe worthy $75 CAD each just for the letter. In the application we were told to provide a full itinerary, entry and exit dates and points and of course marital status, and occupation details. A certain amount of creative writing was used to beef out the application but while the thought of being found out left us biting our nails in fear it was honestly the very real chance of us not getting the letter at all (and losing a non refundable $150 CAD) that caused the most concern. We then tackled the Uzbekistan visa (which was almost as difficult) using the Caravanistan company for the LOI. Turkmenistan would come next but on the condition we had our visas either side completely approved. There seemed to be a lot of “ifs”, “buts” and “maybes” on the route east and a hell of a lot of money required for even that wobbly sense of certainty.
On day three we finally left the hostel for some solid sight seeing, joining Canadians Adrienne (a freakishly smart and independent 17 year old backpacking around Europe on her own) and the relaxed, free spirit Dan – who’d quit his job as a chef in Calgary to meander around the continent with just his backpack and tent. Together we ambled down the cobble stones to a foot bridge across the Bosphorus Strait to the Sultanahmet region that houses the famous Blue Mosque and the equally renowned Hagia Sophia.
The Hagia Sophia cost a budget breaking 30 TKL just to enter and so we admired the bland facade from the outside and beelined strait to the Blue Mosque where entry is free and the internal features are just as impressive. After donning the Turkish equivalent of a muumuu and a rather slippery head scarf Adrienne and I joined Dan and Scott to admire the mosque and marvel over the information booklets on Islam that revealed just how many similarities there really were between the religion and Christianity
Later on we elbowed our way through the epic spice bazaar, drooling over sacks brimming with vibrant spices and assorted sweets, stopping to buy some aromatic Turkish coffee before exiting the throng.
Istanbul by foot is exhausting and later that evening we rubbed our sore feet and gorged on kebabs while re-thinking our allotted time for the city. Soon after we extended our stay by two days (little did we know it would be the first of three extensions).
After a lie in and several coffees we hauled ourselves out of the hostel the next morning and wheeled our bikes back onto the streets with Dan in tow – this time aiming to reach a famous bicycle touring shop on the “Asian” side of town. After crossing another part of the Bosphorus Strait (by ferry) we wandered up stifling hot streets for almost four kilometres into what can only be described as the “fancy pants” part of town. It was here that we had big surprise number four. Contrary to our imagination, the Asian side was without a doubt the more civilised, modern and, well, cool part of the city.
Suburbs reminiscent of Sydney’s high end addresses, streets lined with hip bars and even long bicycle paths forced us to realise that this was, in fact, closer to the real Istanbul that tourists doing a whirlwind trip of the historic sites would never encounter.
Unfortunately with a higher level of modernity came a higher cost for, well, everything we wanted to buy. The bike shop was truly a wonderland for cycle tourists but having the monopoly on this niche market meant you paid through the nose for it. New tyres (some hardcore Schwalbe Mondial varieties) were on our kit list and set us back a whopping 55 euros each while the chirpy owner announced Morocco had killed our chains and we’d need a couple of new ones as well. The entire bill came to a whopping $525 AU and we wondered back through the now sinister feeling streets wondering if this next “cheap” leg would in fact prove quite the opposite.
A late lunch in the hippy quarter made up for the money moping and we spent two hours hooking into all you can eat vegetarian food at the Kooperatif Cafe. In a bid to fight capitalism the owners claimed you could pay what you think its worth (a dangerous concept for hungry, broke travellers) and we loved it so much we were tempted to just spend our entire Istanbul stay here sipping tea, eating vegan cake (don’t knock it till you try it) and chatting to other cheap travellers.
Emri (the manager of our hostel) joined us an hour later and then gave us a private tour around the Asian side which included takeaway beers on a lush park overlooking the harbour.
Later that night (back in the hostel) it became clear we’d accidentally stumbled into the Hotel California and were finding it harder and harder to leave. We seemed to be finding those odd jobs we’d been putting off for half a year, insisting they all had to get done before we cycled east, and after extending our stay AGAIN until Sunday we realised the truth of the matter – we were hesitating in light of the many challenges that we would soon face.
By day nine both Dan and Adrienne had left, Richard (the charming British cyclist) had peddled out and just the long term hostel residents were left and we knew it was time. Our visa situation was still uncertain, our route was still up in the air but with fancy new tyres and the road calling the next morning would hopefully wash it all away and we’d be pushing the peddles east into the great unknown.