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6) 30th May, Turkey - fat & lazy in Istanbul

Over six weeks, 3930km and half a tube of vaseline later (saddle sores I tell you), I've arrived in Istanbul. Actually got here four days ago but hadn't got around to typing up this report until now. It's a rabid city, and there's a lot to take in. For a while, in Bulgaria, I was starting to doubt whether I'd even make it past Istanbul... it can be a pretty lonely road out there, but I'm over it now, and as this is my last major city for a long long time, I am making it count. Visas, bike bits, books, maps, cuddly toys ... everything for the next stage. And kebabs, lots and lots of kebabs.

And what is the next stage ? A successful Iran visa application (2nd attempt) will mean I'll take a bus to eastern turkey, then back on the bike, through Iran, up to Azerbaijan, a cargo ship across to Turkmenistan, and then Uzbekistan. On from Tashkent, the capital, is still a bit of a question mark...

Can't guarantee when the next update will be ... but do stay tuned.
(Photos to be updated in the next couple of days)

21 May, Sat - rest day in Sofia..:   The city centre is quite compact, and to be honest, not a great deal to see. Still, a good laid back atmosphere. Well, almost. I don't know if there's a problem with crime here, but all the money exchange booths are locked from the inside, with a big mean-looking bloke sat infront until a customer appears - upon which he temporarily leaves his paper (the Bulgarian equivilent of The Sun) and cigarette while you change your cash. Same with the hotels. In the lobby of the one I'm staying in, there's always at least one, usually two, dressed in their "uniform" of black shoes, black trousers, black T-shirt and black leather jacket. There were three there this afternoon, chatting infront of their cars (BMW and Mercedes). Are these security, or part of the Bulgarian Mafia ?? In any case, they don't open the door, help with the bags, or even say hello. Their job appears to be hanging around reception, smoking tabs and looking 'ard.

Another thing - in Bulgaria, shaking the head in a kind of side-to-side motion means "yes" (and nodding means "no). Just can't get use to this. In one place I ordered half the menu because everytime the owner shook her head I moved frustratingly onto the next item...

22 May, Sun:   Well I never intended to get this far,especially as it was midday before I'd found my way out of Sofia (oh, don't get me started again..). After finding myself on the motorway (directions from the police, seemingly not bothered that it's illegal), I finally got onto the minor road, in a horrendous state of repair, but no traffic, lots of trees, mountains.. and climbs. One disturbing incident - climbing up a long hill, in the middle of nowhere, I saw a man in the distance standing in the middle of the road. A little strange I thought but carried on. As I passed, I caught a glimpse of him - covered in blood, streams of it running down his face, and he was clutching a wound to his neck. I was shocked, and then in the ditch behind him I saw an overturned car, practically crushed. I stopped, made towards him - then a Lada appeared out of nowhere, the man got in, and off they went.

Thankfully, no more incidents like that for the rest of the day. But I was tired and really lacking energy, so decided to head for Kostenets and call it a day at 75km. And I was shagged from all the climbing (up to about 900m again). But despite looking quite big (on my map at least), there was no place to stay. Passed a policeman, and he said the nearest place to stay (a motel) was in a town 20km further on. Got there, asked around... no, nothing here. I'd have to go to Pazardzhik, another 30km further on. For Chrissakes...
It was just before 5pm and the light was starting to fail, so, digging out the favourite mantra of "no pain, no pain.." I pressed on non-stop. Arrived in town, found a cheap hotel, bargained the price down further, and got my self installed in the room and relaxing on the bed, all by 6pm. Pretty pleased with myself!

Nice town, lots of streets to wander, loads of terrace cafes & bars, trance and europop pumping out, and packed - full of young people having a good time. And it's a Sunday night!
Distance: 127km. Overnight in Pazardzhik (Bulgaria).

23 May, Mon:   Took it easy today - not much sleep last night. Woke up at 4:30am to some REALLY loud trance musicright outside the hotel. A quick 40km dash up the road to Plodiv before lunch, where I'm staying for the night (a half day off). Leafy boulevards, nice old houses, large park and a "ye olde town" area with it's own Roman amphitheatre. Nice place to spend an afternoon, despite atrocious directions.
Returned to the hotel, and switched onto the "Gold" channel, expecting a few classic British TV treats like Benny Hill or The Good Life. I was astounded to find instead, the Best of British "Adult Productions". You can imagine my disappointment.
Distance: 40km. Overnight in Plodiv (Bulgaria)

24 May, Tue:   Bit of a late start this morning. Clear blue sky and a hot hot sun. Good long straight road with not-quite-so-murderous traffic most of the time, but little shade. Passed through rolling hills, the fields looking like a green velvet sheet laid over the countryside. Managed 60km without stopping. When I did, I met two cyclists coming the other way. They were German, hoping to make Istanbul to Berlin in 16 days - that's 170km a day. They were travelling light - just a couple of bags each - on fast lightweight bikes, but still... to make the distances they were travelling on highways, and thereby avoiding most towns and cities - they were planning to bypass Sophia. I dunno... didn't really see the poiny in travelling like that.

Later, almost fell off my bike with shock when a long piece of cord left near the verge of the road slithered out of the way to take a shot at me (it - the snake - got my bag instead).
Nearer the border, had to adjust my road-survival techniques to concentrate on the traffic coming towards me. Reckless overtaking, forcing me off the road several times. On one break (collapsed over my bike under the first birt of shade for miles) I was invited to join a couple of Bulgarian families out for a drink. Had a good chat, but took my leave when one guy got into a heated table-thumping argument with his brother-in-law.

6 euros for tonight's hotel. Not quite the same selection of TV channels, though.
Distance: 149km. Overnight in Svilengrad (Bulgaria)

25 May, Wed:   One of my main complaints about Bulgaria - you can get a beer or expresso anywhere, anytime. But a sandwich, or even just bread ?? No. You generally have to settle for a hamburger to take with you for lunch (3 hours later).
Came across Silvain just before the border into Turkey - a French cyclist, 2 weeks into a 16 month trip. He's planning to end up in Japan too, though through a more indirect route than me. Passed 6 passport checkpoints and several cars full of Liverpool supporters - cup final tonight in Istanbul between Liverpool and AC Milan.
Turkey was green and pastoral with rolling hills - a constant up and down. But it was a beautiful day, and the countryside looked likewise. Tried the "Silvain method" of locating accomodation tonight - have dinner in a town, cycle out late, and as it starts getting dark, locate a derelict building (preferably with roof) to sleep in. We stayed in what looked like some abandoned farm outhouses, though we did discover an inordinate number of large animal skulls and bones in the long grass. Most likely cows, but I preferred not to dwell on this particular quirk of tonight's "hotel".
Distance: 93km. Overnight near Babaeski (Turkey)

26 May, Thu:   A surprizingly good night's sleep apart from a few strange dreams ("the Cows, the Cows.."). Initially the same pleasant road with rolling hills, but gradually turned into a traffic nightmare. Met a French couple coming the other way. They'd been cycling for 14 months, and looked it. Were not too polite about Italy.

I've found it's best to stop and eat something away from people - say, the middle of a field - otherwise the Turkish will come up and chat away asking lots of questions. Even maybe offering you tea. Very nice, but you don't get anywhere! Prices are a lot more "fluid" here. They generally try and rip you off for twice the actual price before - good naturedly - giving in and letting you have something for a reasonably decent price. Asia.
Lost Silvain somewhere around Corlu, but amazingly met up with him at the end of the day in Silivri (the coast at last!), when we both walked into the same hotel at the same time (there being nowhere to camp for another 20km).
Nice promenade looking out to the sea. As we'd see adverts for Tuborg Beer, we assumed it likely that despite being an Islamic country, the locals still generally drank beer, so we'd find a local bar to have a drink. Wandered around, and everyone was drinking tea. No alcohol in sight. Eventually found a dingy looking hovel with a couple of tables outside and glasses of beer on the table. The clientele... English.
Distance: 112km. Overnight in Silivri (Turkey)

27 May, Fri:   It's after midnight, I'm sat up in bed in an Istanbul hostel, 2 days after the Liverpool-Milan match, and I can hear the faint chant of "Liverpooool, Liverpooooool" outside in a street somewhere.
My first hostel this trip, and it hasn't changed much in the 13 odd years since I last stayed in one. Average age 20. Average going-to-bed time 3am.

The Road Into Istanbul was incredible. Four to six lanes of jam-packed fast-moving cars, buses, trucks, motorbikes... weaving here, there & everywhere, rising, falling, lanes going off to the left, the right - madness, absolute madness! It was so extreme, so beyond terrifying, I was actually enjoying it at some points. At the end of it all, when we came off to head for the coast (and dare not go back), me and Silvain were laughing, manically, crazy-man style.
Distance: 77km. Overnight in ISTANBUL!! (Turkey)

ISTANBUL:   With the push of Silvain's youthful exhuberance, saw the entire city - on foot - in one day. As well as walking around the mosques, bazaar, river, shopping areas, docks, posh district, stadium, etc., we also took random changes of direction into side-side-side-streets where little kids were playing carefree in the middle of the street (the same street that those Turkish madmen drivers like to zoom down so much). Out of the tourist areas and into the normal shopping districts (the "householf lighting" district, the "electric generator" district, or the "outboard motor" district to name but a few), there was no more aggressive pushing of goods or services. In contrast, near the station, I had to physically disentangle from my legs a shoe-shine man who was determined to polish my trainers.
A tiring day, with bruised feet at the end of it, but a lot seen. Silvain had to leave the next morning, onward to Ankara (and then Iran, Central Asia, China, Japan, America..) in his quest to sample a discoteque in every capital city. It was a shame to see him go, but we'll hopefully meet in Japan next Spring - where he can add "Roppongi" to his list...

The last few days have been spent doing a couple more sights (Topkapi palace - despite being 5 Tourists per Square Metre, still a soothing change of pace from the city), visas (an hour's bus ride and two taxis to the Uzbekistan consulate. It was closed), and even running into a few more cyclists when shopping for tyres! A Slovakian guy, at the start of his mammoth quest onto Tibet and then Australia, and a young German couple on the way back from their's after almost three years on the road. Some incredible stories.

Oh dear, I thought, will I be going through that as well ?...

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