Day 12 – Into Turkey
June 2, 2012
I have time now to write about yesterday’s ride from Bulgaria to Istanbul. Woke before dawn in Nessebar, there was a wonderful suffused pre-dawn light on the old ruins of the town, birds singing, view of the Black sea and NOT RAINING. After breakfast we drove off, lovely scenery of rolling green hills very like Southern England, the road was rough (unmade, or concrete with potholes) but we all enjoyed the ride very much. Soon we hit the BG/TR border, a process which I will now describe.
First we came to Passport Control leaving Bulgaria – several stops and getting off the bike – then to Customs where we are exporting our bikes from not just Bulgaria, but out of the EU, so we have to show vehicle rego papers and they have to check that the bike matches the papers. This took 20-30 minutes (as I recall) but you ain’t seen nothing yet. Driving a few hundreds of metres across a Schengen Zone (no man’s land) we come to Turkish passport control = this requires you to buy a visa stamp which costs 15 Euro and they will take only hard currency. We stick the stamps in the passports, then at another window we get the stamps stamped and hey! We are in Turkey.
But not the motorbikes! To import these we need to get Turkish insurance (even though we already have insurance), this costs 9 Euro and takes like 20-30 minutes to prepare for EACH BIKE. The official’s computer conked out and he had to do one all over again … we also had the problem that one of our bikes has come from Vanuatu, which none of the officials have heard of so they claim it does not exist. Eventually, we all get our insurance. Then we register the bikes for use in Turkey – showing the insurance, and we are spared paying visitor’s road tax, but cars have to buy a sticker for that – and having registered the bikes we go to another window to get Customs approval to import them … when the official has returned from his lunch.
So far so good and it has taken only 3 hours, but nothing went wrong on this border … imagine the delay and carnage when there is a problem! But it was all worthwhile, because as we drove off we rounded a corner where another offical stopped each bike and checked passport, insurance, import permit and rego – all of which were now perfectly in order, so Istanbul here we come!
We rode along quite good Turkish roads and freeways, across flat or undulating green countryside, 30 km from the city centre the housing began and 20km out there were high-rise blocks – packed across the visble landscape. The guide book says Istanbul has 10 million people, another aource says 13.5, officially it’s 16-17M but the locals tell us it is 24 MILLION PEOPLE. The roads are good but very crowded as we get nearer the centre, but we kept all 15 bikes together in a tight formation and with good leadership from the Compass Expeditions guide on the front bike, we all arrived safely and directly to the hotel – which is only 5 minutes walk from the Blue Mosque, it is that central.
To our amazement the very centre of Istanbul, which features the Blue Mosque, St Sofia, Grand Bazzar, Topkapi Palace etc etc – has all been nicely paved with bricks and made traffic-free, with green parks etc – a few months ago, and they are just now finishing it off. Someone in authority must have had buildings dynamited to free up the space – and when finished, the precinct will be a world-class tourist attraction, rivalling and IMHO even exceeding the Taj Mahal in its magnificence. Another post later, I have taken 250 photos today and have some paperwork to tidy up first.
Day 13 – in Istanbul
June 3, 2012
I made the most of the day off and saw a lot of the stuff on the city centre, which is being refurbished at fabulous expense and will be ready for the northern summer tourist season. There are a dozen worthwhile pictures so I’ll have to leave them as a mess at the bottom of this post.
We were taken on a tour in the morning, beginning with the blue mosque built in the 1600s. Very impressive, of course, held up by great stone columns inside and the Sultan got special permission (from who?) to have six minarets (no other mosque has more than four). From there on foot to the Topkapi Palace, pretty good but not as magnificent as the palaces of Rajasthan that Barbro and I saw last year.
The Hippodrome is simply a long paved area with two obelisks and an octagonal thingy at one end. The central obelisk is one piece of granite, stolen from Egypt and erected here in the 4th century, one wonders how they got it upright.
We hoofed around the streets near the Grand Bazaar and found ourselves in the streets where shoemakers buy their raw materials. Great atmosphere, men at work everywhere, we bought a wonderful Turkish lunch at a corner cafe. The muezzin intoned the midday call to prayer, and everyone rushed to pray, a van drew up and handed out carpets which were laid on the pavement, some of the richer men brought their own mats.
On from there to the Grand Bazaar which is all pretty silly, my friend bought several belly-dancing costumes (for his partner and her friends, of course). I forgot to mention that yesterday, at the border entering Turkey, the Customs people pulled out our duffel-bags to inspect and opened one of them, guess whose, yes it was my underwear that was exhibited, but it could have been worse, if I’d had a belly dancing costume in the bag. Anyway, out from the silly Bazaar at gate 2 – a spot where I stood as a much younger man in 1972 – to view the Basilica Cistern. Of all the cisterns under Istanbul … This one is huge, and very well presented for tourism.
Finally I went to the St Sofia mosque, now a museum and they charge you $10 to get in so there are not many tourists. On entry I passed along a passage, already very impressive and when I came to the central space … Well I stood stunned for a long time and my jaw dropped. This mosque is BIG, like 55m high and there are NO PILLARS supporting the roof. And it was built in 537 – for a thousand years it was the biggest cathedral in the world. It is bigger than the Blue Mosque and more impressive. I would say it is more impressive than the Taj Mahal, but that has a nicer setting around it.
After all that, I was so tired that I spent the evening at the hotel, and today (day 14) we drove to Safranbolu but I am now running the blog a day behind.
Recalling day 4 – into Salzburg
June 11, 2012
Recalling day 4 – into Salzburg
I have time on this Black Sea crossing (the ship is parked off Sochi and will be stuck out here for 8 hours; more on this horror story later) to process some of my GPS traces, this one among them:
This shows my entry eastwards into Salzburg but the story behind this line on a map is as follows. We left Lauterbrunnen in heavy Swiss rain, I have waterproofs but the feet and hands get soaked, then the weather brightened and the gloves and shoes dry out as air passes over them. We were congratulating ourselves on the lack of rain in the afternoon, despite a Big Black Cloud looming. Our route aligned itself to pass under the cloud, which thus loomed more and more, and when we were 72 km from our destination a thunderstorm hit us. The four of us in our group all stopped, frantically put on our rainwear and took off again.
Swiss rain was pretty full on, but Austrian rain takes the prize – and the Austrians are so organised that they put road signs on hilltops where thunderstorms are likely (or, possibly, are permitted). To my horror I saw I had forgotten to put the cover over the tank bag, the camera was about to get soaked so I stopped, put it on in 15 seconds and zoomed off again. The other three bikes duly missed me and pulled over to wait, about 4 km up the road, but stupidly I overtook a bus so I did not see them, nor they me (I forgot the rule that you stay in the slow lane when isolated, for this reason).
So I stopped to refuel, the rain abated and I took off alone, but altogether that 72 km went through FOUR separate thunderstorms. The second storm was amazingly intense, and had hailstones in it. I pulled into the next fuel stop to get my act together, under whatever shelter I could find. On every ride we all carry a map of the day’s route, and the address and GPS lat/long of the destination hotel. I now entered these into my GPS, which I had not generally been using as I don’t have the detailed maps – Salzburg is shown, for example, but with only 3-4 main roads.
I had to convert decimal degrees to minutes, yes I stood outside in a thunderstorm multiplying 0.8153 by 60 in my head, then I took off into the pelting rain and hail. The temp was low (10*c) so the helmet visor does not de-fog when you breathe, so you have to leave it slightly open, whereupon the rain gets in on both sides of the visor, and on your spectacles, and if you want to wipe it off the internal surfaces you have to lift the whole visor, getting a full faceful of weather.
Then guess what, the whole freeway promptly jammed solid, there must have been a collision up ahead, the cars were stationary all the way across a valley, up the next hillside and over out of sight, and there was no room to ride a bike up the side or through the middle. As I sat there on the stationary bike in the rain and hail, isolated wet and lost except for an X on a bare GPS map, I despaired … but then I took strength from the thought: They said there would be days like this, and maybe even worse with no freeway and no hotel at the end, only a dirt road and a tent, which I will have to put up myself. Come on you Alpine rain gods, let it rip! Bring it on!
Just then, I saw that 4 cars ahead there was a little country road exiting the freeway. I took it and followed some other cars, but one by one they peeled off, and just as the last one left me there was the freeway again, up ahead of the obstruction and all clear! I rode neatly into Salzburg and found the hotel by turning such that I always got nearer the X on the GPS. When I came to where the X was, there was the hotel, and the other three bikes arrived at the same time.
Mozart never had a motorbike, but he had plenty of worse problems than mine. And when he was my age he’d been dead for 27 years.