OK, the title stinks of cheese, I know, maybe I’ve got writers block? I suppose it’s true what they say; Istanbul is where east meets west and that the old cliche is true. The problem was that perhaps the gap between east and west is no longer what it once was. Rumbling noisily into the city the traffic had backed up around 20km before I even entered the cities numerous ring road system. And so Istanbul lacked a magic for me that I had expected and hoped for, yes the kebabs got cheaper and weren’t made of pork, the people got more charming and had swapped iced cappuccinos for chai, but it lacked a certain oriental magic. My bizarre preconceived desire to see a sudden abundance of snake charmers, ottoman bazaars and a lack of any tarred roads were in all fairness ill realised. Perhaps it was a result of driving to Turkey that the shock was less sudden and more gradual, but the city is like any other European city, albeit with more mosques and a lower quality of road etiquette. Nobody was wearing a fez.
I had only just arrived in the historic capital of the Ottomans for ten minutes before the bike was lying bruised on its side as a hapless coach crunched into her shiny boxes and toppled her from unscarred grace and beauty; it was the final straw of the day. It was the first mishap of the journey and not the welcome I really wanted to the place, I became quite wound up about the incident, panicked and did a fair amount of ranting and swearing inside my helmet to compensate for the damage..
Istanbul is not riddled with pigeons fortunately. They have another plague and problem though; that of the tourist, and they can be found striding round confidently at all of the famous landmarks gawking ‘Oh Gawd!’ at everything. I follow them on the tourist trail, and find myself photographing the Blue mosque, the Aya Sofya and the Topkapi Palace alongside them. I am also quick to note that there appear to be more carpet shops surrounding these attractions than actual tourists, all of the attractions are incredible, but by around 10am are too crowded and a little bit soul destroying to trudge round. Is it authenticity which Istanbul lacks in my eyes?
So as a pink dusk fell over the Galata Bridge, I found myself crossing Istanbul’s Golden Horn and was amongst hundreds of locals, dressed roughly and smoking pipes, fishing with rods, bait (and more success than the hapless fisherman of Thessaloniki). The fisherman seemed undisturbed as trams, taxis and what seemed to be the entire world constantly filtered past from Europe to Asia. Tulin; my charming and wonderful host met me to take me out for Raki at a meyhane (a pub for Istanbullohs), to soak up some local atmosphere and meet local people. We sat in authentic Istanbul watching the people; eating Armenian delicacies and drinking copious amounts of alcohol and were immediately relaxed in the new surroundings. Perhaps Istanbul did have some magic left in its endless metropolis. Wondering back through town, the now familiar drone of the mullah’s cry came from the surrounding minarets and I had begun to fall in love with Turkey.
Despite my obsession with time, speed and pushing onto the next destination, the rides pace has not been exhausting and will take a back burner from this point east. Strangely the minute I roll into central Istanbul the odometer flicks over to tell me that I have already clocked up 2500 miles, yet I haven’t scraped the surface of the country and the road atlas shows that the border with Iran sits over a thousand miles to the east.
Gallipoli is the next subject of my wanderlust and it feels somewhat of a pilgrimage, to see the beach where so many young Brits fell. I had always wanted to visit the battle fields and absent mindedly while tracing my finger over the massively scaled man, decided that it must be a short three of four hour hop on the bike from the capital. Setting off from Istanbul at around 10 am, I blew my host a kiss goodbye as the rain started to fall. It begins to pour as it has done for every second of my stay in Turkey so far, yet arrogantly I jump on the ferry to cross the Sea of Marmara anyway. I find myself laughing arrogantly to myself at mother nature’s poor attempt to thwart me. Didn’t she realize, I was British and that the rain flowed through my blood, and besides I was protected by the mystic powers of Gore Tex. How dare she challenge me not to go where I had planned! Getting off the ferry visibility has dropped to about 10 feet at the most, the rain had increased to a torrent and maximum driving speeds had reduced to about twelve miles an hour. That was unless you were driving a coach, when the maximum speed had increased to over 110 mph, because friction was no longer such a limiting factor in their journeys.
By around 2pm I had covered absolutely no mileage and became more and more aggrieved at the entire world. My boots were full of water, so were my pockets, so was my wallet and so was every other waterproof container in my possession; some of which i didn’t know existed. My day is compounded when fording a flooded road when a convoy of vehicles overtake me, not only covering me in freezing muddy water, but obscuring my vision completely. The sudden cold and darkness is like being plunged into a mountain river and I have a small panic attack, fearing falling off the road, being rear ended or crashing into something in front. This unfortunately makes the situation worse as it means I keep up my speed with the convoy and continue my soaking. Eventually the bike stalls and i am forced to stop, the road appears from the dirty darkness and I am safe.
I drive into the nearest town like a small defeated, drowned crusader and stand like a sodden dog in the town square until the locals begin to take pity on me. I am greeted by Kenan who speaks no English at all but insists on adopting me as his new pet and friend. It would appear he drives an old Mercedes and so is quite important, and seems quite fascinated by my plight. He pours tea down my throat, feeds me, takes me to a local dentist (to use the Internet), parades me round the town, gets all the local mosques to open up especially so I can look around and compliment the decoration, but generally thaws and dries me out. He seems to know every single person in the town and I begin to think that our friend Kenan is the local Papa Don, head honcho mafioso and wonder what on earth had landed myself in. Soon a small crowd of people have gathered round my now tea stained corpse in Kenan’s fridge shop and begin cheerily and without hesitation to thrust various mobile phones at me. Nobody speaks any English on the end of any of the lines, but great delight and novelty is achieved in getting the wet English fellow to flummox unsuspecting relatives/friends/enemies with a damp ‘Hello’. I still haven’t managed to find a single person who speaks so much as a word of English.
Eventually a mobile is thrust in my direction and expecting another confused Turkish voice I am greeted by a broad East End accent. Leveine it turns out spent the first twenty years of his life in Hackney and will be round to the fridge shop in ten minutes. Then Karim turns up; he is fifty four years old and looks like he should be dressed in a kelim or a burka or something vaguely ethnic, but instead is wearing a Nike air zip hoody and a pair of low slung jeans. Expecting more Turkish, I am most surprised when he greets me with a ‘Hey Wassup man’ and it turns out that he grew up in New York. Word he says had travelled round the town quickly that I was a prisoner of Kenan’s hospitality, and he had decided to come pay me a visit and share some of his stories of gambling, raqueteering and fighting in the states. I can’t really grasp quite what Kenan is doing back in Turkey, but I am pleased to have his company all the same.
After dining lavishly at Kenan’s place and spending a lot of time admiring his two bedroom apartment and complimenting Turkey, we jumped into his 1990’s Mercedes parked outside, despite my host having polished off an entire bottle of Raki and began to hurtle round the town. We end up in a pub which looks similar to the den in ‘Fight Club’. It is full of bar flies who look like they have never left, jeering men and prostitutes. It is the most fascinating place I have ever been; the Topkapi Palace does not compare. Karim tries to explain that the women are not prostitutes, but that men pay to chat to them, while buying them expensive drinks. It doesn’t seem to make much sense to me and Karim seems enthusiastically arranging something with one of them while gesturing at me and so I plot my escape with Kenan. By this point it’s nearly two in the morning and we are flying around the back lanes in the Mercedes; I’m not terribly sure where we are going but end up at what seems to be the world’s only twenty four hour lorry dealer. I am most confused by this, until Karim arrives terribly drunk. He is surprised by my ignorance as to why in the UK lorry dealers are only open in the day; ‘What happens if you wanna buy a truck in the middle of the night?’
I wake up in my hotel bed in the morning and quickly decide to make my excuses and make my way to Gallipoli the next day, full of free food, free petrol and an eternal gratitude to Kenan and his family who have been the most wonderful hosts anyone could have hoped for. I continue on a sunny road and reach Gallipoli by lunch time.
With the sites at Palmukkale, Ephesus and Gallipoli soon behind me I have taken it easy in Turkey despite the varied weather. Everyone is friendly, everyone waves, and I never feel threatened. Arriving at the town of Esme, i am greeted by Hasan’s family; a family friend of many years. Standing in his neck of the woods, I was again greeted like a returning prince, filled with food, drink and anything else I desire. His brother even buys me a watch despite my protests as my Casio $1 special has given up a digit. I make my way to Cappadocia the next day, which is one of the most spectacular places in the world; a place which makes anything the UK has to offer appear distinctly below par. Camping up at one of the few official sites I have used, I am invited to dinner with the owner’s family; I am sick and tired of hospitality. I just want to be left alone. How ungrateful can one get, but is it too much to ask for a little peace and quiet. I have been in Turkey nearly a fortnight now and as long as you make the hand sign which in Europe could be misconstrued as a wanker sign and say ‘Turkiye’, a look of total delight comes across people’s faces and everyone is friends. People let you camp for free, I am surprised that any of Turkey’s restaurants make any money because most of the time I end up full of freebie samples.
The people of Turkey are the friendliest, most kind and warm people i have ever met. Just don’t suggest that the Syrians are like them, or that they are in anyway even neighbours with the Arabs or things turn nasty. Drifting across the mountains, still burning east on my way to the Syrian border, there is history everywhere; there is more history in Turkey than you could absorb in a year. Round every corner the scenery changes, and another world class archaeological site emerges. In one day i drive through desert, mountain, thick evergreen forest, Mediterranean vineyards, rain, sun, freezing cold and 12 cups of free tea; i have covered only around 200km. I have never been to a country so varied as Turkey.
Tumbling down the freezing mountain onto the rich fertile, cultivated plains of Adana my time in Turkey is nearly up for this chapter. The heat suddenly hits me like a sledge hammer as I reach the flatland and i already feel i am somewhere distinctly middle eastern. Joining the rocky road from my rough camp in an unvisited, unused, uncared for, untouristy, un everything you would expect from such a site, Byzantine castle a sign for Haleb (Aleppo) appears. 89km, it is written in a different font to the Turkish signs. It feels more rough and foreign. Damascus is calling me.