Istanbul, not Constantinople

Mike on Bike arriving at border between Turkey and Bulgaria.

Turkey is going to push me to the limit. It’s perfect.

The climb to the border took hours. Fog smothered everything. There was nothing to see, nothing to hear but my breath. I didn’t raise my eyes until the crest, and when I did, gasping, expectant, I saw nothing but barbed wire and machine guns.

The moment I crossed the line a camouflaged soldier appeared from the woods, barking in Turkish, his weapon trained upon me.

I didn’t freeze. I didn’t do anything. I just stood there, holding my camera, realizing how stupid I’d been to stop for a photo of the border sign. Welcome to Turkey indeed.

I emptied my wallet for a visa and vowed to stack as many kilometers as possible between me and that place. I’m glad I hated it. Now there really is no going back.

Men loading van on streets of Istanbul as seen on bicycle tour of Turkey.

The streets of Istanbul

But onward is no easier. The ride to Istanbul was a nightmare.

The sun stole whatever the hills couldn’t sap from my legs. Traffic coiled over the horizon, screaming through oily clouds, and the horns, they never, never stopped. I couldn’t breathe, couldn’t even think. I arrived in the city centre cracked and empty, but I made it.

Strength or pride don’t get much mileage these days. I get down the road only because I’m stubborn as hell.

But oh the stops along the way. Istanbul is staggering.

Hagia Sophia in Istanbul as seen on bicycle tour of Turkey.

Hagia Sophia in Istanbul

The bazaars are a carnival of the senses – thousands of people flow past stalls of spices, carpets and hookahs while vendors hawk roast corn and blind men try to guess your weight for a lira.

It sounds suffocating, but I don’t feel that at all. The city has 13-million people and in the throngs I disappear. I don’t stand out the way I do in small villages. Nobody here points to my blonde beard or stares at my legs. I cherish the reprieve.

But what really gets me is the skyline. As the cool sea breeze ventures ashore in the evenings, I sit on the terrace of my hostel and marvel at the minarets bursting from every corner of the city.

In me they inspire no awe of God, but rather the men whose hands could build something so perfectly beautiful.

Tomorrow my feet hit the ground once more. The drive east will not be easy.  In the next 10 days I need to cycle more than a thousand kilometers to Trabzon, where I will pick up my Iranian visa.

It’s madness and I love it.

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3 responses to “Istanbul, not Constantinople

  1. Amazing adventure Mike. I was in Istanbul last year and loved it; even though I’m not at all religious, I loved when the mosques would sing to each other at dusk. Something about the Bosphorous at sunset and singing beautiful buildings.

    Looking forward to continuing to read about your adventures.

  2. I just wanted to thank you for the postcard…I didn’t realize Bulgaria had that kind of architecture. For some reason, I always pictured it as some sort of depressing Soviet-era country. My parents were in Turkey two years ago and they loved it as well. I think my dad got a late night haircut there….weird.

    Also….Iranian visa? Are you going to Iran?!?!?!?!

    • Hey, not a problem. I’ve been thinking about you and figured it was high time I sent a note.

      I am indeed going to Iran. I got my visa approved last week and hope to arrive shortly. Wish me luck!

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