Now the adventures really began. I’m still not quite sure where Europe finishes and Asia begins but I knew crossing into Turkey started my transition.
It’s fair to say that emotions caught the better of me as I left Bulgaria. I’d had a wonderful time so far and leaving the EU proper definitely bought a little trepidation. However, without such moments there is no real challenge and in some way this excursion is about pushing my boundaries. Fortunately, the border was the easiest I’ve crossed so far and might be the smoothest manned one I do all trip.
As a gateway between the continents, the border has huge amounts of traffic so they are well setup for migrating vehicles. The only bit of admin to do was purchase insurance. It’s €89 whether you’re there for a day, a week or three months. I had one minor moment of confusion as I tried to exit the border without customs checking over Pico – as I cruised up to the exit gate, there must have been a quick radio call. I was swiftly directed back with a look claiming innocence.
First stop was Istanbul, the centuries old capital of culture fusion. Entering at night, I came through the modern cosmopolitan area of the city and the lights reminded me of London. Tall buildings and large panel screens greeted my eyes – I hadn’t seen a super modern section of city like this for weeks. It’s curious how entirely alien settings can remind you so strongly of familiarity.
My hostel of choice was the Cheers Lighthouse. Overlooking the Bosphorus Strait it’s well located to visit the oldest sections of the city with the Blue Mosque and the Sultanahmet district close by. Breakfast was included, which was a luxury no other place had offered so far. On arrival, the hostel owner, a Brit called Tony, immediately upgraded my room to a premium 3-bed dorm – what fortune – I felt properly impressed.
Morning bought some exploring. Rain may have fallen while I ventured round but this did nothing to dampen the experience. I was heading to the Turkish Baths that day so I was going to get wet whatever!
The Grand Bazaar was my first place of interest for two reasons: firstly, I love bartering with locals in markets and secondly, I needed some warmer clothes – winter was coming!
The bazaar is a labyrinth of traders and a beauty to get lost in for a few hours. Originally, it was organised according to product: the individual ‘streets’ dictated what you would find. There are still some elements of this with the main runway almost exclusively reserved for the jewelers and pockets for carpeteers or antique dealers but things are generally more mixed up these days.
I delighted in engaging the various sellers who put a little effort into their greeting. They have a very good feeling for what nationality you are and will always try to greet you in your home dialect – I did get a few ‘guten tags’ here and there though! Tall and ‘blonde’ I suppose ;)
You can definitely get some better deals slightly out of the main bazaar and this will usually be for the exact same products as inside. I found a Turkish Delight seller off the beaten track willing to give me a great discount (15 Lira /kg) compared to others. Having arrived very early, I was his first customer of the day and it’s good luck for traders to make a good sale early on. Turkish Delight there is something else compared to the boxes that you get back home. Even if you’ve never enjoyed it before, you have to check out their flavours here – it’s wonderfully different. Baklava is also available at many of them if that’s more up your street – it should be!
Getting a warm hoody from the clothes sellers required a bit of work if you didn’t want the latest football shirt or some sportswear knockoffs. I had a wonderful conversation with a Syrian refugee and between us we managed to get something both thickly warming and stylish. I’m wearing it now and it was a great purchase for 70 Lira (£23).
Buying a hoody in the Grand Bazaar
I could have spent days wandering around the antiques, shisha pipes, lanterns, carpets and trinkets. There was some great banter with the traders and many smiles exchanged. I even have a few business cards and a couple new Facebook friends should I ever require anything in the future.
I knew that I had now entered a different phase of the world when I saw a road being tarmac’d on the hoof in the middle of busy street. Not-so-health and safety. The people of Istanbul (because they're not just Turkish in this juncture of the world) will really try and sell you anything: if they don't have it they'll know someone who does so they'll sell it anyway – pretty much everything is for sale. Where Scandinavia does everything by card, cash was king once again.
A conversation had with a carpet seller I met over and over again while walking through the bazaar
After a small kebab and a pide (boat-shaped cheese filled pizza-like loveliness) it was off to the Gedikpasa Hamam. I’d chosen this bathhouse with no research because of a flyer in the hostel and it turned out to be a great choice. It’s centrally located near the Grand Bazaar and old: claiming its existence since 1475. This was a truly rigorous, calming and sweet experience.
Hamams (or Tuskish Baths) are a great Turkish tradition as palaces of relaxing, socialising and washing. The basic cost of entry was 15 Lira but for 10 Lira more, you get the classic foamy rubdown. It’s definitely worthwhile to spend a little more for the full experience. I also opted for a honey massage for 20 Lira more (£11 in total) and could not have benefitted from that more. The masseuse identified the tightest little nugget of muscle in one of my shoulders and spent far more than the allotted time going to town on it. I came out feeling truly muscle sore and invigoratingly refreshed. Maybe it’s the driving!
Gedikpasa Hamam entrance
In the afternoon, a stroll round the city bought me the delights of the Valens Aqueduct, the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque and Gülhane Park near the Topkapı Palace. I watched the sunset over the Mediterranean having ended up on the coastal highway back to the hostel. I wouldn’t recommend walking round that road!
Just one of the many streets in Istanbul
One full day here was nowhere near enough – you could easily be here a week – but the east was calling and my Chinese visa dates were putting pressure on getting to the most remote locations. It was time to head to central Turkey.
In the hostel, a girl who’d overheard me talking to Tony about my plans and travels going forwards had approached me. At breakfast, she collared me and said could I give her a lift to Cappadocia, my next destination. Having not even introduced herself, it was rather forward. However, I said yes – it was a long drive and company is always appreciated on such drives. My one proviso was that she better be a talker. I needn’t have worried!
Christina was a Russian girl cutting loose after a couple of years teaching English in China and working out her life plan. The journey to Göreme, Cappadocia was a long one – just shy of 10 hours in total. We took a lovely pitstop to refuel and lunch at one of Turkey’s pretty good service stations. Pico even got an unrequested car wash. We left her dirty and returned to find her clean with a smiling, money-asking Turkish man. I was very happy to pay for the service – it was good to have him looking sharp again!
The journey flew with our discussions on Turkish men’s forward style of propositioning females, the culture shocks of China and Christina’s journey through life so far. The roads are good in Turkey and on that day we flew along. Considering the irregular method of requesting a lift, it was a totally pleasurable affair providing the lift for her to visit a friend near Cappadocia.
Christina and I finishing up our journey
Having dropped her off, it was into the hills of central Turkey to find the mysterious moonlike landscape of the national park. I’d been looking forwards to this ever since the early days of planning the expedition. If you’ve not heard about it or seen pictures before hopefully my descriptions and photos will serve to introduce you. They will never do the reality justice though!
Arriving in the dark, I missed the initial joy of discovering the landscape but I had nothing to fear. 2 days later and I would be beaming. My resting place for my time in Göreme was the Stay In Peace Cave Hostel. I certainly discovered some peace in a dormitory room caved out of Cappadocian stone.
Cappadocia was formed from 3 volcanos spewing their lavarous bounties over the land. The sharp changes in climate plus centuries of wind, rain and snow then set to work to erode the volcanic ash, lava and basalt to form unbelievable and magnificent ‘fairy chimneys’. In the past few thousands of years, humanity has carved these into homes, storerooms and civilisations for shelter and safety.
My adventuring included breakfast in the wonderful Hezen hotel overlooking the Ortahsir castle. If I ever return it’s definitely where I’ll be staying as it’s got a great location in a slightly quieter, more authentic Cappadocian town than the central hub of Göreme. The balcony has a great view and breakfast wasn’t too bad either with a buffet style setup and cooked-to-order omelettes. I’d gone to the town to buy some local wine after a recommendation from Christina’s friend. Instead, they kindly gifted me a bottle. This was after I told them I write a blog so that may have had something to do with it!
Breakfast at the Hezen Hotel overlooking Ortahsir castle
Daytime adventures included going deep into the underground city of Derinkuyu. On the surface there is just a small ticket office. Underneath expands a cave system of carved corridors and rendered rooms each more fascinating than the next. With your back bent and 7 floors to wend your way through, I can’t imagine anyone exiting without their eyes gleaming and a few beads of sweat.
Outside the entrance to Derinkuyu
Inside the underground city
Elsewhere I climbed the highest castle in the region, Uchisar. Getting around by car is definitely the best way – Pico and I had so much fun cruising around with Toots & the Maytals on the stereo. For Uchisar, I’d driven through the town on one side and hiked up to work my way through the many ancient homes. Gazing out from the structure had me dumbstruck. After an hour or so of climbing through the dusty passages I stumbled upon the entrance: with my clearly unusual approach I hadn’t paid the fee – whoops!
Gazing out from Uchisar
The 'fairy chimneys' of Cappadocia
Perhaps my favourite moments were the sunsets and sunrises I enjoyed here. You could be anywhere at these moments of the day and you would be satisfied. For my sunset experience I chose Rose Valley. It’s a little way out from Göreme, past Ortahsir and up a winding track where you pay a 2 Lira entrance fee. You can walk all through the valleys and rose-tinted stone – I was just there for the sunset and it was a beauty. The skies were totally free of clouds and as the sun bid its departure, the sky lit up. I was too busy enjoying it and without camera filters to get any truly wonderful photos! It was a moment just for me :)
Sunset with Pico in Rose Valley
Rose Valley and me
It’s very rare I’ll ever be able to say this: my favourite Cappadocian moment was getting up at 4am. Everyday, hot air balloons are launched to float through the valleys and over the kingdom of stone cone peaks. I wasn’t riding a balloon having promised to do this with a friend in the future but for anyone going it’s an absolute must. (I think it’s about between €120-€200 for differing lengths of ride – obviously shop around).
My reason for getting up was to watch the balloons cast off. It was such an adventure as everyday the locations for launch are different depending on the weather. I was up well before anyone else in the town was. The balloons usually launch as the sun crests the horizon, which was just before 6. I had to find them first!
Pico and I parked up on a main(ish) road and waited for the balloon trucks to start appearing – I didn’t have to wait for that long before one or two came along and I followed them. In the darkness, knowing if I’d hit the right area was difficult but as the sky lightened, all around me was a hub of activity. I was there before the majority and delighted in taking many photographs as the minibuses of tourists arrived for their flights. I’m not sure I’ve ever enjoyed taking photographs as much as at this moment – it was truly special.
Filling a balloon
The righting of a filled balloon
After the first few balloons were skyward bound, Pico and I rushed up to Sunset Point above Göreme. If you’re in this part of the world you will undoubtedly find yourself up here at some stage. It’s a great location whatever the time of day – watching the balloons glide and dance through the sky as the sun popped up was wonderful. I spent the morning photographing the skies with a Londoner and an Indian – both were IT professionals: you wouldn’t believe how many people in the industry I’ve met! It was my pleasure to spend the morning with them.
Sunset Point and the balloon sunrise
The one restaurant I’d recommend in Göreme would be Café Safak. It’s a family run affair that just does good food – simple as that. A fruit salad breakfast and eggs there was heaven. They even made me a packed lunch for my drive deeper into Turkey :)
The next few days bought some long drives through the Turkish countryside. Clay red dirt met camel white stone and algae’d green rocks as I crossed into the dusty world of Asia. Often there would be sun-browned petrol station workers casually filling cars with a cigarette in-hand.
Central turkey is a land where only the best bits of earth are farmed. At one point there was a giant pipeline being formed as I rode through the mountains like a seesaw. Wealth seemed to flow with the line as brand new trucks swept past me, temporary settlements for hundreds rose out of nowhere and hoards of pristine piping laid ready to go. I had cold nights in back of Pico that were rewarded with the starriest of nights and the candyfloss of the Milky Way. As I entered towns I saw many domed mosques under construction – I can’t remember the last time I saw a church being built in the UK.
Driving in Turkey
The town of Sivas bought delight as I wandered round aimlessly coming across a huge building of unknown purpose where the security guard served me Turkish tea and even gave me a his own guidebook – usefully, it was in Turkish!
Here I had to purchase a HGS tag for the toll roads I’d used. The Turkish have a great system where you attach a tag to your car and it automatically charges you based on your number plate as you cross certain points making it quick and efficient to drive these perfect roads. I just had to find a Ptt (yellow-branded post office), queue for a fair while and fill out a quick form with my passport and some cash. As long as you get one within 7 days of your first road use you’re all good.
Ptt - Turkish post office in Sivas
Finally I appeared on the coast of the Black Sea. Crossing a final pass bought greenery and the fresh dampness of forest. This was a welcome respite and I travelled up a serene gorge to the rock face monastery of Sumela. At 1,200 metres and built into the very stone of the mountain it glimpses down on the valley you climb to get there.
I hadn’t known when I ventured there but the monastery is currently being renovated. The man at the entrance to the national park did me a favour by allowing me in for free as I’d travelled so far. A couple of others I met viewing the monastery from afar had been charged!
The renovation began in September 2015 and should have lasted a year to elevate the monastery to UNESCO’s World Heritage list. I can tell you it’s not ready yet and won’t be for a while – I can tell you this because I broke in.
Once you’ve climbed up the track into the mountains, there is a viewing platform to view the monastery at a distance next to a gatehouse ruin. From here a path cuts across the mountain to make its way to the main event. With the renovations underway there’s a few guards posted to the beginning of this path blocking the way. Having travelled all the way there I wasn’t quite ready to settle for just a glimpse.
A glimpse of the Sumela Monastery
So with a cheeky glint in my eye, I climbed over a wooden fence and set off into the dense undergrowth. The challenge was skirting round the security guards as the slopes were steep and I’d need to get back onto the path. This had me scrabbling through dirt and jumping down rocks all while trying not to make a sound.
Several attempted paths were unsuccessful. And then, after trusting the stability of the forest floor under an 8ft drop I was beneath the checkpoint. Slowly, oh so slowly, I melted through the fauna. I was past them. This bought delight and disappointment. I could see the path above me but there were workmen cutting stone slabs.
Not quite ready to give up yet I used to the cover of their machinery to make a desperate action. Timing with their use of the stonecutter I stop-startingly ran up the green-covered, scree slope in a tense and surreal game of granny’s footsteps. I got to the path, leapt over the railing, jumped up the wall and breathlessly settled behind a tree. Now I’d have to go over them.
Fortunately I stumbled upon some small track: maybe it indicated others before me or habitual animals in the forest, I don’t know. Climbing up a jutting rock, I used this track to try and scoot above the workers. Unfortunately, they had a clear line of sight over the only place I could join the path. For some reason I’m not aware of, there was a hubbub and the guards called to the workers. Distracted, they were looking into the forest and I took my moment. Sprinting as softly as possible, I joined the path and disappeared round the corner. I’d like to think that they’d noticed Pico had been sat there for a long time and were looking for the unknown owner. Regardless, I took the fortune as a good sign of my endeavour.
Walking along the path was magical. It was fully finished and gave a sign of the wonders to come when the renovation is complete. I rounded a bend and caught sight of the monastery – I stopped: just to smile.
A sweaty me on the new path to the Monastery
More workmen were up ahead at the entrance to the monastery. Unfortunately, it was a no go with them working there so I hopped the wall and headed back in the brush, skirting underneath them. I worked my way round further and right under the monastery. Up close it was even more impressive; the monastery peering out from the sheer rock face. I just sat and looked up in awe. I got a couple of pics off before my camera battery died (doh!) and they don’t do it justice – I had a far better view through the trees that the camera couldn’t capture. It didn’t matter to me – I’d done it; I’d seen it up close. Now for the return leg – insert your own nervous face emoji here!
Up close and personal with the Monastery
Knowing the drill now, I ducked and dived back along the way I’d come. The stonecutters had moved further towards the monastery, which wasn’t ideal. In another moment of luck, they went to collect more stone so I could dart above them once again. Upon their return, I was pressed into the slope and had to time my moment of crossing through plain sight carefully. I made it – phew.
I treaded carefully back until I came to the security guards – this time I went above them and found a far simpler route – I could see Pico; I was safe. Then shock hit me – I’d lost my GoPro – oh bugger. With my heart racing I debated the option of going back. I had to and thought I knew where it was: where I laid down, right above the workmen. Back it was and I could see it. But how to get there – the workers were mere 5 metres below. A plan popped into my head. Walking brazenly and calmly I started above them. Immediately they caught sight and shouted. I reached the GoPro, feigned dropping something and picked it up. The Turkish shouts continued and I motioned apology – “you mean I can’t come this way? Well I’ll go back then – Thank you”.
And so I was off, back the way I’d come and scrabbling down to Pico, I drew my breath. Wow. I have rarely been so stimulated and invigorated as this moment. Sweaty and smiling I stripped off by the car to change my dirt-stained clothes. The tense atmosphere could well have all been in my head but it didn’t matter, I felt it. Those feelings of joy and exhilaration didn’t leave me for hours.
My run to the Georgian border was less dramatic and bought a wonderful stop in a delightful roadside kebab house – it was the best I had in Turkey. The Hanedan restaurant was situated in the tea producing capital of Turkey, Rize. Sitting down with the owner’s son, Tunahan, we had a special conversation. He’d been the architect for the building and I even recorded a message of love for his girlfriend in my best Turkish. Showing me pictures of the local area on his phone has definitely made me want to know more about this place – I feel it would make a good summer holiday destination. On leaving, they tried to offer me my wonderful meal for free – I politely declined and it was back on the road.
The road bought a Turkish shave, money changing and some snacks in a border town. Due to Turkeys tempestuous relationship with their neighbours they wouldn’t swap money into Georgian Lari so dollars it was.
It was onto my next adventures in Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan – my gateway to central Asia.
Sunday 16th October – Cheers Lighthouse hostel, Istanbul
Monday 17th October – Cheers Lighthouse hostel, Istanbul
Tuesday18th October – Stay in Peace hostel, Göreme
Wednesday 19th October – Stay in Peace hostel, Göreme
Thursday 20th October – Somewhere in the mountains near Altköy
Friday 21st October – Roadside of the Black Sea, Rize