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Turkey: Istanbul

Litochoro to Porto Lagos: June 16th

~James

I awoke late a bit stiff and sore from the hike up Mt. Olympus the day before but feeling good about having gotten some exercise and excited for a day of riding. Sarah cooked us a delicious breakfast of eggs and coffee that we had left over from somewhere in Europe as we broke out our laptops and cameras to catch up on some blogging, video and more. As usual it took us longer than expected to get everything done and it was soon afternoon. We organized, packed and finished off a few crucial items such as route finding while we still had wifi. We then said goodbye to our awesome hosts and headed into town for another gyro. After eating our fill and making sure our bikes were full on gas and oil, we were on the road, heading along the coast towards Turkey.

Breakfast in Litochoro

After a few hours of riding and our first toll of the trip (thanks to google maps for helping us avoid all the others) we arrived in a small tourist town on the coast of the Agean. We made a quick stop in a pharmacy to pick up an essential we were running low on: foot powder. Without it we would be an unhappy group that would not be welcome in many, if any places. We then found a grocery store and a bakery for a makeshift dinner of some tasty pizza-like bread. Michael and I were a bit disappointed when the carton of ice coffee we purchased turned out to be half-n-half but made the best of it with some cookies. Hopping back on the bikes we set off with the aim to camp near the Turkish border.

As darkness fell we made our ways away from the hills and onto a farmland filled area called Porto de Lago. We began searching for a place to make camp, peering through our bug spattered and steamy facemasks for side roads that might be promising. After a few dead ends, a drippy water tower and a few barking dogs we found a small beach area away from the road with plenty of trees for hammocks. It was far from ideal with a somewhat shady car parked near the entrance, trash scattered around and a very unpleasant smell of poop. After checking out some cool glowing bugs on the ground we set up our hammocks and warily passed out.

Turkish Border: June 17th ~Michael

We woke up on the beach of Porto Lago and our suspicions of the beach being a s$!* hole were confirmed. The tree I had hung my hammock from had what looked (and smelled) like human feces smeared on the trunk. Thank God I never stepped in it.

The picture does NOT capture the trash everywhere...

We were out of the campsite by 6 am and were surprisingly cold for the first part of the ride. It felt great compared to the heat we knew would inevitably come in the afternoon. We stopped in Alexandroupoli for breakfast. We were worried about the upcoming border and wanted to be happily full before trying to enter Turkey. We weren't disappointed.

All four of us got 2 different pastries; ham/cheese, custard, spinach and "meat" were our pastries of choice. Each ~0.5 kilos (they weighed them after we ordered) meaning we each ate over 2 lbs of pastries... We were ready to try and cross into Turkey!

Sarah and Graham exiting Greece

Since we had gotten our Carnet de Passage's (motorcycle passports that must be filled out correctly upon entering and exiting each country, otherwise we face the risk of each losing our $1000-2000 deposits) signed and stamped when we entered the EU (Belgium), we needed to get them signed and stamped when we exited the EU (Greece). However, the lady working the Customs office would not stamp our carnets. After some heavy persistence from Graham, the lady finally folded and agreed to sign our documents. Thankfully, we handed them over. Instead of signing and stamping the carnets, she signed and stamped blank sheets of paper. That wasn't what we needed. Our carnets were still blank. We finally found someone who spoke English and he explained that Greece does not recognize the carnet de passage as a customs document, therefore they could not sign it. We're hoping the piece of paper will be adequate to get our deposits back.

I wish all we needed were stamps on blank pieces of paper!

Thankfully, the Customs lady exiting Greece was our largest problem of the Greece/Turkey border. While entering Turkey, we went through 4 different check points, each checking our passports and vehicle registration. One check point asked for the Green Card insurance (see previous blog for "altered" green card details) and scrutinized it heavily. It passed! I think my heavy perspiration and anxious knuckling made him more suspicious than the actual altered document. At the final check point I was welcomed to Turkey by a man who pronounced my name "Michelle". We made it!

Crossing the border I was slightly nervous about how 3 large, white, Americans (and one slightly smaller Australian) would be received in Turkey. On our drive towards Istanbul we followed a Turkish car with a small boy sitting in the backseat. He was in awe of us. We waved, swerved, revved our bikes and tried our best to entertain him, he couldn't stop smiling. His whole family (there were 6 people in the car) enjoyed the show and seemed to appreciate our entertainment. My trepidation of us traveling through Turkey was gone (I'm hoping it stays that way). We'd been warned that driving through Istanbul can be very dangerous, especially on a motorcycle. However, we found it to be an absolute blast. For the first time this trip, we felt like we could dodge, dip, dive, duck and dodge all the cars on the highway. Cars were stuck traveling ~5mph in bumper to bumper traffic while we were able to squeeze through them at 15-20mph. All the drivers (except the occasional taxi) were highly courteous and surprisingly seemed to encourage our driving techniques. Once we got nearer our Air B&B, things got a little more hectic. The roads were unbelievably steep and narrow, there were kids playing everywhere, food carts parked in the middle of the road and I got separated from Graham and James. It only took a couple minutes to find each other, thanks to the children in the street pointing me towards where Graham and James had gone. However it was a valuable lesson in sticking together.

Streets in Istanbul

We made it to the Air B&B and were greeted by Faruk, the owner. He showed us the "flat" that we were staying in and we were able to drop off all of our gear in the apartment. It was an unbelievable spot; a balcony overlooking a park, a bathroom with all kinds of soap, and an overall clean and hip feeling apartment.

Once all our gear was safely locked in the flat, we followed Faruk to his apartment with our motorcycles. We were able to lock our bikes up outside of his apartment and feel peace of mind about their safety. From there, he recommended a restaurant and we were able to have our first Turkish meal.

Faruk had invited us to his apartment to hang out then go to a night club later that night. After our meal we showered and headed back to his apartment. There were 3 other guys hanging out at Faruk's all drinking beer, smoking cigarettes and listening to music. It was amazing to sit down, drink a few beer and try our best to converse with the rest of the people. There was a lot of nervous laughing and broken English at the beginning of the conversation but once a few beers were finished it all became easier (as it always does). The guys we were with (including Faruk) had been friends since their teens, were all teachers, and all lived in the same apartment building. It was impressive to see their lifestyle and how they spent their summer break. Unfortunately the mixture of beer and a full day kept us from making it to the night club, we were unbelievably tired. We said our goodbyes, thank yous and headed home.

Exploring Old Town Istanbul: June 18th

~Graham

As I write this I am listening to the prayer calls echo throughout the city and it is a calming reminder that we have made it somewhere new and culturally very different from home. The prayer calls are suprisingly relaxing and I enjoy how they surround you from all sides as all the mosques send out their prayers at once. We woke up a little groggy from the evening with Faruk and pretty pumped to play tourist all day in old town Istanbul. All the main touristy things are in the old town and since we only had one day we figured we would head there to check it out. We have all felt that we are missing a large part of the culture and history of the places we are passing through, and although the touristy place isn’t necessarily the best place to find culture there is atleast information about the area.

The flat we are staying in had a drip coffee machine and we were a little to excited to have a good ole cup of joe instead of espresso. Feeling good from our coffee we headed out from Taksim towards the old town. It was a bit of a walk and we were all pretty hungry. The plan was to try and grab as much street food as possible and snack for the majority of the day on as much turkish foods that we could. We made it to the Galata bridge and got our first real glimpse of the peninsula that the old town sits on. I counted 5 massive mosques that dominated the skyline of the hill with the minaret towers protruding high above everything else. The mosques are pretty opposite to all the churches that we passed while going through Europe. The mosques are very wide with multiple dome roofs and smooth lines surrounded by the minarets, while the churches were tall and narrow with lots of pointy pieces protruding. As we walked across the Galata bridge and looked over the Bosphorus it was cool to imagine what this must have looked like 1500 years ago when a lot of these mosques were built. It is pretty humbling and amazing to think about how long people have been in this place.

Dome Structure and Minarets of Hagia Sophia

Since we were all starving our first stop was the Grand Bazaar. We did not know much about it other than that there were lots of shops, and hopefully food as well. Turns out they don’t have much food within the Bazaar, but there were plenty of kebab shops just outside so we stopped and stuffed ourselves with 2 kebab sandwiches each before venturing into the bazaar and bartering our way to great deals. I had envisioned the bazaar as being an open street market with tents like all the other street markets I have seen, however the Grand Bazaar was completely covered by ornate roofs. Apparently it started with tents long ago and then they started building a covering over it and it just kept expanding until its present day size. The roofs are supported by large archways and the ceiling is painted in bright colors. There are vendors everywhere and we were instantly pulled into a turkish delight shop. The guy started cutting us samples of all the different kinds of turkish delight and we were swindled into thinking you could buy just a small amount. The candy was so delicious we forgot all of our bartering techniques and got ripped off pretty good. We weren’t that concerned though because the turkish delight was too good to be disappointed. I had gotten rid of my long pants in Chamonix as they took up a lot of space in my bags, and since then anytime we go out somewhere I am forced to rock the boots and shorts fashion style. Needeless to say I have gotten some crap for it, so I as looking to pick up some new jeans at the Bazaar. I have a nice shirt that also takes up room, but I intended it to be my nice going out shirt. Sarah got it for me so I thought I would bring it along, but after getting rid of my pants she thinks I look like a dufus if I wear the shirt with my shorts and boots so I got the go ahead to get rid of the shirt. Instead of dumping it though my goal became to try and trade my shirt for a pair of jeans. I started out pretty tentative and it took a bit to explain to the vendors that I actually wanted to give them something to exchange, but after they realized my intent they would laugh at me and politely say no. I tried various tactics with most of the jean salesmen around the market, and I think they actually liked the fact that I was trying to sell them something. At the least they thought it was amusing. I wasn't amusing enough to warrant a trade however, and I walked away with my shirt still in hand. I have not lost hope though, and I think outside of the city I might have better luck bartering for something with my fancy shirt.

Grand Bazaar shops

We made it out of the bazaar and Michael and James decided that a Zippo was going to be the item they bargained for. We walked into a shop with zippos and after some quick bartering they got some zippos for 10 lira a piece. The bartering process was really short and Michael was dissapointed that he probably could have gone lower. Sure enough we walked 100 ft down the road and the starting price for the zippos was 5 Lira. We really were pretty rusty with our bartering techniques.

One of our main points for the day was to learn something about Istanbul so we wanted to check out some museums and mosques. We decided the Hagia Sophia was probably a good investment, but after the fact I am not really sure if it was a worthy investment or not. The building itself is astonishingly impressive. It was built in the 500's and was one of the tallest buildings of the era with a dome that rises 56 meters tall. They remind you constantly that the building was built in less than 6 years, however I find that claim pretty difficult to believe seeing as the whole thing is constructed from massive chunks of marble that were transported from all across the Byzantine Empire. It was originally constructed as a church under the Byzantine empire, but after the Ottomans conquered Constantinople it was converted into a mosque, and in the 1930's it was converted to a museum. There are christian mosaics on the walls of the church that have been refurbished as well as large plates containing arabic script that depict allah and muhammad. The architecture and shear scale of the building was mind blowing and how they actually built it must have been with black magic. Unfortunately though there wasn't much information about the building or any of the culture surrounding it and we were a little dissapointed that we didn't come out understanding more about the city and its history.

Inside the Hagia Sophia

We left the Hagia Sophia and figured we had to go through the blue mosque while we were in the same area. My dad actually proposed to my mom in front of it, so I really wanted to check it out. We went inside and the mosque was very impressive with the largest marble pillars I have ever seen, or probaby even exist. They were probably 15 in diameter. We felt that we were invading a sacred place though and it was a little strange to see a bunch of tourists staring at people praying like it was a zoo or something. We bailed and were pretty tired from walking around all day so we wandered the streets in search of a hookah bar. We quite literally stumbled into one that had a terrace about 4 stories up that looked over the Sea of Marmara. We ordered an apple mint hookah, some turkish tea, and then busted out the cards for a few rounds of hearts. One of the guys who worked there was very nice and was pretty good at blackjack. He said he could count cards and made some decent money doing it. He played a few hands against Michael, and only just beat him. He did have an impressive trick at the beginning of having Michael guess which card would go down first. We still don't know if it was blind luck or actually a magic trick. Either way we spent a few hours there realxing and buzzing on hookah.

After our hookah relaxation we grabbed some delicous looking food that was displayed in a window, and headed back towards the Hippodrome which is now the main square area of old town Istanbul.

Window Food

They had set up hundreds of tables there and a few thousand people were around the square waiting to celebrate the first breaking of the fast of Ramadan. This was coincidentally the first day of Ramadan, and we had stumbled right into a massive festival type deal. We grabbed a few snacks so that we could break bread with everyone and found a table to sit and wait for the fast to end for the day. They were passing out little boxed dinners to everyone in the square so that they could participate in the celebration. We felt guilty that we had just stuffed our faces so we did not want to grab one of the boxes, however a man came over and plopped 4 of them down before we could protest against it. Inside there was a nice piece of bread, a juice, 2 baklavas, and a bag with 2 olives and date inside. We were pretty excited to be a part of the whole event and it was an incredible case of right place right time. There were lots of important looking people speaking, but we of course had no idea what they were saying so we were completely taken off guard when a howitzer cannon suddenly fired to signify the end of the fast for the day. As soon as the cannon had fired the minarets lit up and a quick prayer call covered the square as everyone dug into their food. I have never seen so many people eat so quietly. I think everyone was so hungry that they just dove right into the food and didn't want to make a sound. It was really cool to be a part of and quite a few tourists asked us how we had gotten boxes. We weren't really that sure ourselves, but we were glad that we did!

Everyone ending the fast next to the blue mosque

After we finished our meals we headed back to our place in Taksim. We were tired and stuffed from a long day of being tourists, and the long walk home seemed a little more hilly than before. We made it back without much incident, and decided that we needed another night in Istanbul so that we could figure out what we were going to do about the motorcyle parts that we needed to obtain and the maintenence that we wanted to do on our bikes. After some discussion it was off to bed to the sound of the prayer calls in the distance that served as a foreign lullaby to my weary body.

Day 2 in Istanbul: 19 June

~James

The others awoke to the sound of drums that wake the Islamic population of Istanbul during Ramadan for their pre-sunrise breakfast. I however managed to block out the drums as well as my alarm blaring on my chest an hour later. When I did finally become conscious it was Graham telling me that we had the apartment for another night, which to me meant that I could go back to sleep. After sleeping in longer than we had the entire trip, we got up and had some coffee while making some calls and doing some research about where to get parts. We eventually made it out of the apartment and headed towards Taksim square for some food and a bit of sightseeing. We got the usual kebabs for breakfast then found our way to a small cafe where we drank Turkish coffee while trying to figure out the rules of backgammon.

Failing to decipher the rules, or at least the strategy to make the game interesting, we moved on to the Spice Bazaar. On the way we passed through a district dedicated to lighting, one dedicated to electronics and a hardware district where I picked up some pieces I thought might come in handy later. The spice market was located inside and was a hallway packed full of tourists, locals and vendors trying to lure you into their stalls. The exotic looking spices came in all shapes and sizes from buds and full dried fruits to yellow powders. The best part was the variety of smells and it wasn't long before we found ourselves in one of the booths picking out our favorite tea. We got apple tea, traditional Turkish tea and got to smell one that was an aphrodisiac and one that was good for colds. I also purchased a mixed bag of delicious candied fruits including banana, kiwi, ginger, lemon rind, strawberries and more.

Spices and tea at the spice bazar

Dried fruits at the spice bazar

Getting hungry we once again snagged a kebab at an outdoor stand before making our way back towards the apartment. Along the way we stopped at a street vendor selling zippos. We had been eyeing them for awhile as they are a souvenir that would be useful and therefore could justify keeping it. We were all soon wielding a new zippo with our names engraved on the back by the talented vendor using a battery operated dremel tool. Once at the apartment we made some tea and played cards before going our own way to make calls, read and just relax.

Michael's new Zippo

Chilling on the patio with tea

Motorcycle Parts: June 20th ~Michael We woke up in Faruk's Air B&B and began packing everything up. It's crazy how after just 3 nights, all of our stuff seemed to fill every available square inch of the floor and within 30 minutes it was all packed up in its correct place. We walked to Faruk's apartment to pick up the bikes and ride them back to our flat. The bikes were uharmed except for some cat poop smeared across my tank and Graham's favorite spider "Shelob", who crawled under his tank while in Greece, had created another nest.

Graham's new best friend "Shelob" making her second of many more webs

We road the bikes back to the flat with the hope of finding food along the way. We thought the search for food would be simple. However Saturday mornings seem to be a time when everyone sleeps in. The majority of shops were closed and the streets were hard to navigate due to the lacquer that was being painted onto them. However we eventually found a breakfast place and had our first Menemens (eggs, tomatoes and pepper all mixed together in a sort of soup) of hopefully many more. They were delicious!

Warning: Lacquered streets are very slippery, especially on a motorcycle

Graham and James's helmets had been giving them a hard time since leaving Boulder. They were loud, unstable, starting to fall apart and were hard to communicate with people while on the road. Therefore they were hoping to replace them with Givi X.08 helmets. The great feature of the X.08 is that the chin guard can rise over the face with the push of a button. Thus allowing the user to communicate with people on the street much easier than trying to talk through a chin guard.

Graham had been in contact with Andre from Givi and Andre was able to hook us up with helmets from a distributor in Istanbul. The goal for today was to pick up the helmets and find parts for motorcycle maintenance. We needed chain lube, oil, oil filters, air filter oil, brake pads, a new chain, a rear tire, a tachometer/speedometer cable, a rear inner chain adjuster, and someone to true my rear wheel. It was a long list, but we were feeling optimistic.

Andre had told us to drive to Ozen on the Asian side of Istanbul and we would meet someone who would take us to the distributor in Istanbul that would give us the helmets. We were able to find Ozen (after quite a few wrong turns) and were greeted by a confused shop worker who had no idea why we were there. We called Andre and were able to get the name of the man we were supposed to meet. After mentioning his name, everything fell into place. We followed the shop worker to the Givi distributor and were greeted by a friendly shop owner who allowed Graham and James to pick out the Givi X.08 helmet of their choosing. It was unbelievable to walk into a store and pick out an item of our liking and walk out with it. Once again, Andre and Givi helped us out immensely.

With new helmets for Graham and James, we headed towards what seemed like motorcycle store heaven. Throughout the day we had been asking about certain parts and everyone pointed us towards a certain block of shops saying "someone there will have it". We arrived and were not disappointed. There must have been 20 different motorcycle stores, all varying in what they sold. Graham went to one where he found our oil filters, brake pads, oil filter, a new chain, chain lube, and air filter oil. James and I went in search of a new tire and someone to true my rear wheel.

After asking multiple stores about tires, we were finally pointed towards Zenn Motors. There, we were greeted by shop workers who appeared to have everything else we needed. They were able to replace James's rear tire, true my rear wheel and even help replace Grahams chain. They were experts with motorcycles and were unbelievably friendly. They provided us tea while we waited and worked late (past 7pm) to ensure all our needs were met.

Motorcycle Studs

We had ambitious goals for the day, but we were able to get all the parts we needed for our motorcycles, except a tachometer cable and inner chain adjuster. James and Graham even found new motorcycle jackets for 200 Turkish Lira (~$80) that provide solid protection as well as good air flow. If the heat in Italy was any indication of what we'll experience in the Middle East and SE Asia, the jackets were an absolute necessity. Their jackets are fairly tight fitting and with the combination of their new helmets they look completely different while riding. I actually can't stop laughing at them because Graham looks like a 50 year old man and James looks like his 15 year old son.

After getting all of our parts together, we decided to head out of Istanbul to try and find a campsite. It was dark by now, but there appeared to be a park just 30 minutes outside from where we were. We road there, found a spot in the woods, hung up our hammocks and immediately fell asleep. It was a highly successful day for our motorcycles!

Camp spot for the night


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