TURKEY, 25th – 29th June 2017
Going by the Bandırma-Yenikapı ferry was such a relaxed way to travel to Istanbul that I even had a sit-up-nap in the seats, making up for our very early start that morning. We’d had Istanbul as a goal ahead of us since we had left Bologna and the last few weeks we had cycled determinedly to get there. I was tired. But the sight of Istanbul’s low, white outline stretching endlessly along the shore ahead of us woke me up. I was pleased and excited. I had lived in the city for four months two years earlier in 2015 and seeing Istanbul again was a special moment of recognition for me. As we rolled off the ferry the colours of the buildings and the light on them struck me – they were bright and soft in that beautiful way I knew so well and only had found here. I felt a great joy. It was like stepping into a house where you used to live, hearing, smelling, seeing and moving around things so familiar to you. So familiar with it all so that your senses automatically takes you back to times and emotions of the past.
I had never been to the port of Yenikapı before, but I thought we could catch another ferry from here to Kabataş the port closest to our apartment. However, there seemed to be no regular ferries and so we decided to just make our way through the city centre by bike. And it proved to be a good way to reacquaint with the city.
Yenikapı was located on the Marmara Sea south of the old city center, Sultanahmet, and we could see the iconic Blue Mosque and the back of Topikapi Palace as we cycled along the water on a bright blue cycle path to the mouth of Bospherus. As we turned around the corner of the coast the view of Istanbul surrounded us as the light buildings, mosques and skyscrapers crawled from the water up on the hills to all sides. I looked around and could locate the various quarters I knew one by one along the coastline. Each of them held a certain atmosphere in my memory. Kabataş, Besiktaş, Eminönu, Kadiköy, Üsküdar. The ferries were packed with the citizens of Istanbul and they criss-crossed the strait ceaselessly connecting the many hearts of the city. It was a hot summer day and the rocks along the waterline were busy with people having little barbeques, men swimming and sunbathing and a few well-covered women accompanying them. Istanbul was as alive as it used to be.
We had rented a little studio apartment via AirBnb near Taksim Square and so we cycled all the way along the sea to Galatha Bridge where we got off the bikes and pushed across. As always it was full of fishermen standing close side by side with their rods dropping a long way down to the water. It always struck me how the hundreds of fishing lines didn’t get entangled. The whole thing seemed to be more of a social event than a real quest for catching fish. Some men had a bucket with a few tiny fish in them, but surely it could not be the best location if you wanted a good catch with the water busy with boats and ferries and so many other fishing rods for the fish to choose. No, this seemed to be all about tradition. The fishermen were doing what the people of Istanbul always had been doing: fishing from Galatha Bridge, and they were doing it because that is what people of Istanbul do. It made them a part of the city and the city would not be the same without them.
On the other side we pushed our bikes up through the labyrinth of steep, winding narrow streets of the Cihangir area in the direction of Istiklal and Taksim. In this part of the city it made no sense to use a map, the best you could do was to go by your sense of direction and in our case (pushing our heavy bikes) avoid the steepest streets and staircases. Eventually you would get where you wanted to go. The Ramadan had ended the evening before and now were the days of the national Bayram Holiday where families would come together. Because a huge percentage of people living in Istanbul originate from other parts of the country the city was partly deserted and so the streets we slowly went through were surprisingly quiet. Most of the shops and cafes were closed, only a few men sat on little chairs in the shade and looked at us with long, lazy glances as we passed by. Even the otherwise always bustling shopping street Istiklal was almost empty except from a worrying number of policemen and armored vans. On our guard, we crossed the street and found our address and host, Erdin, down a narrow side street. Erdin told us the heavy police appearance was due to a Gay Pride Parade that had been banned by the government, which had not quite been accepted by the participants and so the police had moved in to forcefully end the parade. We found ourselves in the middle of a political hot-spot and that made us even more happy to be able to close the door behind us and get installed in the little flat that was to be our temporary home for four days.
It was great to be in Istanbul, so vibrant, so rich in tradition and history, holding so many memories – and unfortunately so politically tense these days. It was great to be back and feel that it was all still there, more or less like it had been before. But it was also great to have a place where we could close the door, block out the world and take a break from it. Living on the road we were constantly exposed to the world and its people and now it was pure bliss for once to have a place of privacy. And a good wifi-connection.
Our days in Istanbul were meant to be a physical rest from the cycling, but there were still many things to be taken care of. For example getting a letter of invitation for our Uzebek visas. It was mandatory for me as a Danish citizen and for Chris it would make a much easier and shorter visa application process that we planned to do in Baku, Azerbaijan. We contacted a travelling agency in Samarkand and quickly got in contact with a very helpful man. After a few emails back and forth, filling in forms, printing out, signing and scanning the forms again and last but not least after making a payment at Western Union, we received an email with our LOIs. It looked very official and had printed specified dates for our arrival and departure. We had been ambitious, we wanted to enter Uzbekistan on August 15th , which gave us roughly eight weeks to get across Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan, the Caspian Sea and a corner of Kazakhstan. And I remind you, we would be using only bikes and boats doing so. The scene was set for a good old challenge.
Our rest days were also used to catch up with our families and we scheduled our days according to several Skype dates with people at home. One of them was with Chris’s sister and her kids who were suffering from chicken pox those days. To sympathise with and cheer up the niece and nephew good old Uncle Chris got the idea to give himself chicken pox by painting numerous spots in his face with a black marker pen. Apparently Chris found the idea much more entertaining than the kids, but after their conversation he forgot all about what his face looked like and just continued with the doings of the day. Meanwhile I had been out for a walk and I was very amused by his spotted face when he came out and opened the door for me. I had come back because I now had a Skype date with my parents and as Chris came on the screen to say “Hello Dea’s Mum and Dad” they too had a good laugh over him and his chicken pox. But then there was a knock on our door and as I was in the middle of my Skype conversation it was Chris that went to open. It was Erdin, our host, and I don’t know what went through his mind when he saw his otherwise sensible guest now opening the door with his face full of black, marker pen dots, but the rest of us had yet another good laugh on both sides of the screens.
It was also time for me to practice my newly learned skills in wheel-building as my front rim now also needed to be changed. This time I did it all myself over a couple of evenings and I was proud of the result as a fairly straight and strong wheel span around on my bike that was upside-down on the floor. Slowly I was advancing as a bike mechanic and I loved it.
It may sound like we spent four days entirely inside our little retreat hidden away from the world, but of course we could and would not resist the bustling beat of Istanbul that was right outside our door. A common friend of ours, a kind and gentle man called Özgur, had been so good to receive a package of bike parts (and it was the size of a rim) and now he came to our door delivering it to us. It was a great help for us and to say thanks we invited him out for lunch in one of the many restaurants you find in the cosy side streets of Istiklal. But Özgur was of such a generous Turkish (and cheeky) nature that he went to use the bathroom after our meal and on the way paid the bill without us knowing a thing. Insisting that we still wanted to give him something back to show our gratitude we went to get some ice cream and succeeded in paying this time.
Chris had stayed with Özgur and his mother on his previous visit to Istanbul in 2014 and had put me in contact with him when I moved to Istanbul one year later as we had the interest for cycling in common. By the most incredible coincidence Özgur worked in an office right next to the university I was studying at and we met a few times for coffee. On my first day at the university campus I had met one of the many cats that lived there and I had given it the name Lotto and posted it on Facebook. When I got to know Özgur he saw the picture and claimed that it was the same cat that was now living in his office and that he planned to take home and keep as his own. Therefore he now has a cat, that I have named Lotto, and its three kittens living with him – and Lotto has its own Facebook page. Özgur has a true passion for cats and Istanbul keeps him busy, as it is full of cats living wild in the streets. Not only did he look after the cats at the university campus, walking around in the city with him we also discovered that he carried a huge jar of dry cat food in his backpack and every time he spotted a cat (and he was good at spotting cats) he stopped to feed it. Love and care for cats was another certain trait of the people of Istanbul.
The next day we met up with Özgur again together with another friend of mine, Türker. While Chris and Özgur went to see Hagia Sophia, Türker and I sat over a cup of tea catching up. Türker was the same age as me and we had similar ideas, values and dreams, that was why we had very quickly become friends. Nothing of that had changed and it was once again eye opening and thought provoking to share the same views with someone, but to understand that we reached out for them from two very different viewpoints, the Danish and the Turkish – and with the recent political developments in Turkey those two points were growing ever more distanced. I sensed in him a passivizing pessimism regarding the future and a longing back to the times that had past and I couldn´t help feeling sorry for my friend. We all four met up again and went to a restaurant together. Özgur and Türker had never met before, and Chris and Türker had never met before, Chris had connected me with Özgur, but we had never been together all three at the same time. It was special to have all these social and cultural bonds connecting as we shared a dinner of mezes.
And more things came together the next day when Chris and I went to see the place I had lived two years earlier. It was in a small neighbourhood on the Asian side called Kuzguncuk and we got there by taking a ferry across the Bospherus to Üsküdar and walking north up along the coast. The same way I had done several times a week going home from university. I still found Kuzguncuk was one of the best places to be in Istanbul as it is at the same time peaceful, old and close to the city centre. Now it was summer, the parks along the water were busy with life and the trees in the long, narrow main street in Kuzguncuk made a green shading roof over the calm and colourful cafes. We went up a steep hill to sit outside the apartment building where I had lived. Here we had a beautiful view over the Bospherus and Istanbul on the other side, a view I had daydreamed away in so many times before. Thinking about Chris.
So the most special thing of it all was to now sit there together with him. When I went to Istanbul I had just come back from our three amazing weeks together in Laos. It was not long, but it was enough. Our dream about continuing what had begun by me joining Chris in Australia was strong and real and it filled out every centimetre of my mind that was not occupied with studies. But I had to be patient. Staring out of the window, on the long walks and bus rides through the city and in the middle of my intense master classes I would fantasize about the future with us travelling the world together on our bikes. I was only half present in my life as a student, all I thought about was going on a bicycle. When I a few times glimpsed a cycle tourist in the city everything in me was longing desperately to be like that. My Istanbul had become a container of dreams wilder than I had ever imagined and a strong desire to make them come true. And now two years later I was back, I had ridden there on my bike together with Chris, I was no longer full of fantasies and longing for another time, place and another kind of life, I was right there were I had dreamed about being. It had all come true.
The next morning we pushed our bikes onto the ferry from Besiktaş to Kadiköy together with the usual Istanbul crowd. I had taken this ferry so many times, crossed the Bospherus and sailed from Europe to Asia or Asia to Europe so many times. It was my number one favourite thing to do in Istanbul, sometimes I just wished to do it all day. The colours were so vibrant and soft, the air fresh and cool, the city surrounded you to all sides and at the same time you were relieved from the bustling traffic and constant flow of the streets. It was a break to breathe and watch and think and enjoy a moment in life and the seagull’s air acrobatics. But this time it was a little bit different, a little bit more exciting, more enjoyable and more thought evoking. This time the ferry was taking me a few kilometres on my long journey from Edinburgh to Mori, it was taking me from one continent to the next, this time I was not going to come back with a ferry later in the day. This time the ferry ride was like crossing the doorstep to the next stage of our journey, Turkey and Asia lay at our feet, and I squeezed Chris’s hand tight and could hardly believe that I was no longer dreaming.