31 December 2012 – 10 Jan 2013
The bus left Athens at 5pm on the 30th and was due to arrive in Istanbul at 7am on New Years Eve. It was heated so warm I felt queasy and slept through most of the trip. I woke up at 7am to find myself the only person left on the bus and quickly got off to see the last remaining passengers dragging their luggage into awaiting taxis. One taxi driver started trying to solicit my business, I laughed and pointed at the bike, ok yes I did just get off a bus, but I have a bike and that means I ride…now. It took two hours to navigate the 10km across the city from the main bus station to Sultanahmet, where the hostel was located. A few months ago I might have been daunted riding in the traffic filled streets and stressed when ending up on the motorway but the Balkans had soon straightened me out.
Running the inner city traffic gauntlet was rewarded by riding past a long stretch of the old city walls of Constantinople, and eventually arriving outside Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque at 9am. The cityscape of Istanbul was like nothing I had seen prior and all before breakfast. That night I joined a throng of other people standing near the Galata Bridge looking across the Bosphorus to watch the fireworks from west to east. They were pretty lame, though the Bosphorus Bridge did a bit of a dynamic light show. After a three days in the old town I was ready to leave the tourist area behind and do some couchsurfing. My host Rosa lived on the Asian side, she sent me some directions how to get there. It seemed fairly straightforward, cycle across Galata bridge to European centre then across Bosphorus Bridge to Asian side then cycle straight roughly to the near the airport.
I procrastinated til early afternoon then made my way over to the European centre. I was walking along the main shopping street Istiklel when a guy stopped me and asked if I had cycled here. His name was Francesco and he had cycled from his home town of Bologna in Italy, we exchanged contact details before I continued on my way. After a bit of circling I eventually found the on ramp to the motorway that led me down on to the Bosphorus Bridge. As I approached the bridge a security guard stepped out of his small office and stopped me. I wasnt allowed to ride on the bridge for security reasons. There was ample room to do so with a two to three metre separate path running alongside the traffic lanes. I asked him if I couldn’t ride there where could I go, he couldn’t send me back as that was into a lot of oncoming traffic and there was a barrier in the middle meaning I couldn’t cross over.
There are only two bridges that cross the Bosphorus in Istanbul, admittedly I could have taken one of the multiple passenger ferries but riding across the bridge had seemed like a much more fun way of crossing from Europe to Asia. He said he would make a call and then told me if I waited a police escort would arrive. He offered me a place in his office to get warm but I was much happier standing outside lapping up the view and trying to take pictures. This was somewhat thwarted by the fact I wasnt allowed to stand anywhere near the edge. As it transpires the security are there because the bridge is favoured spot for people to commit suicide. (In some research afterwards I discovered it was originally open to the public to walk across for the first four years. And the Humber Bridge that I rode across in England, that is open to walk/cycle across also has a high suicide rate.* Moral of the story if you build it then they might jump off it.)
After fifteen minutes of waiting a Traffic Policeman on a motorcycle arrived and I was told to follow. He sped away along the separate walkway and I had trouble keeping up. In the middle of the bridge a truck had broken down and the cop stopped to assist with the arrival of the tow truck so I was then able to catch up and admire the view. After this interruption we rode across the rest of the bridge and the cop then waved me back on to the motorway. Which is somewhat ironic as the motorway was suicide compared to the bridge. I didn’t actually stay on that motorway but after some time ended back on D-100. This was motorway hell.
For 30km I rode along the shoulder negotiating the buses that would pull in and out of random stops, passengers jumping on and off and the drivers who never slowed down or indicated whilst exiting or entering from the various on and off ramps. There is no merge like a zip. Its I am about to run you down, here is a courtesy honk of the horn to tell you to get out of the way before I do so. I might have got off sooner but I had no idea where I was and so rode on eventually finding the right off ramp and my cs host at 7pm. I had ridden 60km from the European centre to the east of the Asian side, where the suburban sprawl continues to grow and what some might say isn’t really Istanbul anymore. Rosa my host lived there to be near her work at a new university nearby. On the weekend we caught a dolmus and bus to the centre of the Asian side, it took two and half hours. I’m not exaggerating.
After lounging around at Rosa’s for three days it was time to head back to a hostel in the centre. Learning from experience and not wanting to relive the motorway russian roulette I researched alternative routes. There was a few references to a cycle path somewhere along the waterfront and with this whiff of possibility made that my route back to the ferry terminal in the Asian centre.** The cycle path did in fact exist but was a little wonky in places maneuvering along the relatively new spacious waterfront. I was afforded a grand view of the cargo ships of the Sea of Marmara, stopping to take pictures I then looked up to see some rather ominous black clouds approaching. That would be that snow that was forecast then, and so it was. The next two hours were freezing riding through the wet snow to the ferry. My hands and feet were numb on arrival at the hostel, this time in Beyoğlu.
It continued to snow for two more days and reasonable amount settled around the streets. The good thing about snow though is it means there are no queues for tourist attractions or endless touts. That is my tip for you. With the turn in weather and my experience of it I spent some time trawling through the outdoor shops for a new hat, gloves and some shoe covers. I wasnt only justifying my ever expanding time spent in Istanbul on preparation for further cycling alone, there was also people to see.
Jens, whom I had met in Athens arrived in Istanbul after doing what I had flagged, catching a ferry to the Greek Island of Chios and then another on to Turkey and cycling north to Istanbul. We managed to catch up before he hit the road south again for three more weeks of cycling before heading home. Whilst in Athens one of my couchsurfing hosts from Norway had sent me message saying she was heading this way. Thus I was lucky enough to meet up with Kaja and her friend Hauk at the end of their interrail journey.
Istanbul being the funnel for adventurous journeys and a bit of a cycle tourist hub I met with Francesco again and a walker whom he had met on the way into Istanbul. Raz spent one year walking from England to Istanbul her end destination. The finale is to walk across the Bosphorus Bridge into Asia but as we all know this is not allowed so Raz is still waiting to hear back after an official request for a police escort. Francesco said a Turkish author had just jumped off the bridge the day before, apparently the most common way to achieve this is to get a taxi to the middle (here’s a scholarly article to back that up).*** It was refreshing to talk to both of them as we had all just made our way through the Balkans and had some interesting experiences. And last but not least I scraped in a catch up with Mattias and Joakim whom had made their way through Montenegro, Albania, Kosovo, Macedonia, Bulgaria and Greece to Istanbul since I last saw them in Croatia. Was great to see them again and hear some more of their ridiculous stories. Hanging out with other cyclists only fuels the fire.
Hagia Sophia before breakfast.
Around the back of Hagia Sophia.
The Blue Mosque.
The New Mosque.
Approaching the Bosphorus Bridge from the motorway.
Looking out into the Sea of Marmara from the cycle path.
The fishing continues on Galata Bridge.
Outside the New Mosque.
Looking up in Hagia Sophia.
Inside Hagia Sophia.
The Blue Mosque without the endless tourists.