Cold Turkey

Last week, Yugyeong and I visited the birthplaces of the Kardashians, and Stalin (still coming to terms with that myself), before bellowing “Das Vidania” to the Caucuses. This week, we shadow the Black Sea across the length of Turkey, transit Istanbul, before coming face-to-face with a familiar flag.

Day 78 – Gori, Georgia to Iʂikli, Turkey

Week twelve began with us leaving the curious Georgian town of Gori, and joining the highway west, towards the Black Sea port city of Batumi. The three hundred kilometre route was well-paved throughout, and we are starting to believe that our road nightmares (they really exist) may finally stop waking us up at night. Yugyeong still repeats “asphalt… asphalt” as she sleeps (may not be true).

Our tour around the Caucuses has been the most historically stimulating part of our journey so far, but boy has the food been awful. Not wanting to risk being disappointed at lunch again, we set our bar as low as humanly possible, and went to McDonalds. It was quick, cheap, and exactly as unpleasant as we expected – good result.

We arrived in the rogue border-city of Batumi as the sun started to set on the Black Sea so, with an international border to cross, we couldn’t take in as many of the countless casinos and strip clubs as we wanted, and begrudgingly made a bee-line for Turkey. As easily as we were let in, we were let out, and quickly found a nice bit of asphalt next to the Black Sea to park on, and dream about, “asphalt…”

Day 79 – Iʂikli, Turkey to Osmancik, Turkey

It wasn’t the best night’s sleep I’ve ever had (mildly put), as just after midnight the heavens opened, and didn’t relent. You may not think that a bit of rain could be that loud, but inside Toby you might as well put your head in a washing machine. But the weather gods weren’t just satisfied with it raining all night, as it bucketed-it down from dawn until dusk too. Not exactly the conditions we were expecting in Turkey, but we mustn’t forget that it is October now – the usually-crammed beaches are all empty, and the tourists have all flown home… except us (and the people who booked with Monarch).

With the weather foul, we decided to knuckle down, drive all day, and make the most of the tourist-free roads. With only four weeks left before our intended arrival in the UK, we need to be selective with where we visit, and what detours to take. Turkey is a vast country (also mildly put), so we’ve decided to head straight to Istanbul, and spend most of our time on the shores of the Marmara Sea (we’ve heard the sun makes the odd appearance there). Six hundred kilometres completed today, another six hundred tomorrow.

Day 80 – Osmancik, Turkey to Istanbul, Turkey

Clear blue skies and a crisp autumn chill greeted us as we arose somewhere just off the highway to Istanbul. Having driven inland from the wet and unforgiving Black Sea coast late last night, we had entered a far drier, barer landscape – fine with us. The roads are so good in Turkey that hundreds of kilometres drift by with no dramas or misfortunes to tell stories of, or write about – also fine with us. Although, we did reach another milestone as we touched the shores of the Marmara: twenty thousand kilometres on the road.

As we spluttered to the top of an anonymous hill (and the large, bloodshot sun disappeared entirely), a quite astonishing galaxy of luminosities came into view: Istanbul. Being told it’s a colossal city is one thing, seeing it (and priming to drive through it) is another. The last time we drove to a city this large was New York, and on that occasion, we parked in a supermarket carpark well outside the main conurbation (in fact, in a different state) and used public transport to get to and from our vehicle. We did this for three days in N.Y.C and saved a small fortune in tolls, parking fees and hotels. Let’s see if it’s possible in Istanbul…

Day 81 – Istanbul, Turkey

The answer, quite simply, is no. The main reason being is that Istanbul, astonishingly, is seven times larger (in terms of total area) than New York City. Plus, it is actually possible to drive to the centre of the city without paying any kings-ransom-tolls, and find a reasonably-priced hostel that provides some form of parking – which is exactly what we did. In fact, we’ve been extremely fortunate.

Our flophouse is only a three-minute walk from the Hagia Sophia (Turkey’s most celebrated landmark), and less than fifteen from everything else Trip Advisor says is worth seeing – and it never lies. It also has a superb sun terrace that overlooks the Marmara Sea, and a friendly, talkative chef that has already given us more things to see than we possibly have the time for. As it took us more than four hours to get from the outskirts of the city to our domicile in the centre, we were only able to have a precursory evening-look around our new location. Looks like we may have to thrash our way through some crowds come the morn.

Day 82 – Istanbul, Turkey

With the hostel so close to the Hagia Sophia (confused as to why we call it that given that the locals name it Aya Sofia), we decided to thrash our way there first. From the outside, the iconic mosque looks a muddled jumble of different architectural styles and features, and the inside is much the same. The reason being (and I was completely unaware of) was that its first incarnation was as a Christian Cathedral built by the Roman Empire almost two millennia ago. This was actually its primary function for most of its history (hence mosaics of emperors giving gifts to Jesus and the Virgin Mary). Only when the Ottomans began ruling the area in the fifteenth century, was it then converted into a mosque: adding the famous minarets outside, and the Islamic scripture inside.

Just ambling around Istanbul, we quickly caught a real sense of the rich history of a city that has been captured and ruled by more civilizations than maybe any other on earth. With its location on the Bosporus (providing a passage for ships to the rest of Europe) and at a bottleneck between the Black Sea and the Marmara Sea (and thus between Europe and Asia) it’s easy to recognize why it was deemed so important by so many prodigious leaders and emperors. The cisterns located underneath Istanbul (only a few hundred metres from the Aya Sofia) are another striking symbol of this golden past and Roman heritage – they were magnificent.

We continued our history lesson in the infamous Grand Bazaar, although this was more about haggling for fake football jerseys than about Ottoman architecture. The smoke-filled, indoor-market-maze is occupied with the very best (or worst, depending on your patience) salesmen in Turkey, and that’s saying something. After a thousand “my friends!” and “please take one moment to look at my…”, our patience also ran out, and we retreated for a beer on our hostels’ terrace – far more pleasurable.

Day 83 – Istanbul, Turkey to One Hundred Kilometres North-West of Istanbul, Turkey

Istanbul’s abounding history means there’s a hell of a lot to see (if one is inclined to do so), especially in the Golden Horn’s Old Town, in which we were located. Before we could leave, we had a glance at a famed palace (but refused to pay sixty-five Lira for entry), and had a look inside the Blue Mosque (because it was free). Free means busy, and (despite the hysterical hordes of holidaymakers) it was well-worth unpacking Yugyeong’s headscarf for the final time.

Upon retrieving Toby, we had the ominous task of trying to extract him from the centre of Istanbul, to the safety of the Turkish countryside. After several hours of driving, and of praying not to run-over one of the scores of street sellers standing in the centre of the motorway, we found a service station sufficiently distant from the hullaballoo, and made camp next to an Austrian motorhome. Currently, we’re technically in Europe. Tomorrow, we’re strictly in Europe. To the border!

Day 84 – One Hundred Kilometres North-West of Istanbul, Turkey to Kozlets, Bulgaria

Just a short, grey, gloomy drive to the border, as the rain began to pour as soon as we left our camping spot – apart from our time in Istanbul, it’s been that sort of week. Upon arrival in Turkey, Toby was barely checked by border control, and we passed through in a straightforward fashion – the same could not be said of our departure. An Uzbek-style search was conducted: including complete emptying and probing of the car in the driving rain, and an examination from a car-sized x-ray machine which lasted an extraordinary amount of time. I simply do not understand such scrutiny when you are trying to leave a country – it almost puts you off a return, the scoundrels!

The welcoming sight of an E.U flag flapping in the breeze was quickly damped by the sight of the cost of bringing a vehicle into its consecrated lands. Over the last three months, we have really been pampered with the price of diesel, tax, tolls and insurance (in some countries none was needed at all). The days of filling up Toby with the change left over from a loaf of bread are long gone (we will miss you, Tajikistan). After forcibly investing in E.U-wide insurance cover for one month, and purchasing a Bulgarian Highway Pass (I’m none the wiser either), we may need to sell one of our kidneys. I think mine would fetch more, given the size of Yugyeong’s torso.

Despite my grousing, I am covertly jubilant that we have made it to this point. There were numerous moments when I thought that visas, or police, or collisions with cattle would scupper our chances – but we trundled on, and have reached Europe. Toby has been superb, and (quite astonishingly) still has two of his original tyres! Good lad. But halt the celebrations! For they are premature, as we still have a rather atypical route through a refrigerating Europe to overcome. Let the Bulgarian bonanza begin!

Distance Travelled: 20,530km

J

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