Staring at the language barrier in the face

Let’s have tea at the gas station.

Tea is big in Turkey. We’ve all heard about Turkish coffee but let me tell you, the real deal here is tea. It is everywhere. The first days it was a bit strange. I stopped close to a gas station to buy a salad to eat with my Bulgarian ham and some guy sitting at a table uttered in my direction: “Chai?”. I didn’t get it and said no. The following time it was easier. I stopped at a gas station, bought my usual Coke shaped caffeine dose and when I was leaving the cashier said “Chai!” and pointed with an open hand at the sort of tea dispenser you see at conferences and hotel breakfasts, a big metal cylinder with two taps at the bottom. One pours water, the other one tea. And it’s not mint tea like the Arabs, it’s plain black tea. So I poured myself some tea and wondered what the other tap was for. Yay! Double dose of caffeine!

Needless to say, I’m not the only tea drinker. Everywhere you look there’s people drinking tea, they have roadside stall serving tea and some bars advertise their tea price to attract customers (it’s usually 1 lira). But the day before yesterday it went a bit further. I had stopped for some gas and a rest at a one of the big brand gas stations here. Rest routine is always similar: get a cola drink (sometimes it’s Pepsi), ask for the wifi password if available and just sit there sipping the drink. Everyone leaves me alone if I’m looking at the phone, everyone tries to talk to me if I’m not. Either way it works for me. This time, there was wifi so I was left alone. Until I stopped looking at the phone and stood up. The eldest of the pump guys came to me and said… He said what? Yes! “Chai?”. I couldn’t say no. It was a special moment, the guy who pumped my fuel was now pouring me tea from the employee office. We couldn’t talk much, some other guy came and I heard them exchange the usual Q&A that is usually addressed to me: “Almanya?”, “Fransa”. I waited for him to finish his tea and left. By now, I was getting used to their tea and starting to like it.

In the evening, after checkin myself in at a hotel in Persembe, I decided to go for dinner. I must be missing something because when I go out for dinner everything is closed and no one is having dinner but I found this little place close to the hotel and Mehmet was happy to serve me some tavuk with pilau (or chicken with rice for those of you who are not as fluent in Turkish as I am).

My dinner buddies
My dinner buddies Mehmet and Ekrem

Did I say his name was Mehmet? Yes, this guy was really determined to have a conversation with me. When someone, probably his wife, mentioned the language barrier he played deaf and just kept talking to me not caring the least in the world that my Turkish vocabulary totals 20 words and most of them are food and roadsigns and that his English vocabulary comprised not more than 5 words. He grabbed my book and started to ask me about China and Henry Kissinger. Who is he? Where is he from? What did he do? Obviously this is what I think he asked me since I have no idea what he was saying but I answered anyway and the conversation was there. I explained my trip to him and called up on his friend Ekrem and soon we were having a lively chat, probably about different subjects but we didn’t care, it was fun. At some point his son came by, he spoke English and we clarified some points that weren’t quite clear on the previous conversation but he couldn’t stay so we went back to baby talk and scribbling stuff in pieces of paper to try to understand each other. They asked me many questions about myself: my age, the trip’s budget, my job, whether I was married. They advised about the beauty of the women from different countries I would find on the road. Really, it’s amazing the things you can talk about when you can’t talk.

And in the jumble of mimicking and scribbling they told me I should absolutely visit the Sümela monastery and the Uzungöl lake. The former for the history and the latter for the nature. This resulted in the most beautiful road I’ve ridden so far and the visit to a beautiful monastery perched on the side of a cliff for the first day and on stunningly beautiful lake with a little mosque on one side for this morning.

All in all, excellent advise.

Sümela Monastery
Sümela Monastery on its cliff-face

PS: There is also a video of the road. This time I have removed the nasty wind sound and replaced it with some Andean music to make it easier to the ears

Hopa, Hopa, Turkey


Diogenes' statue
Diogenes and his dog

That guy there, the stone one, is Diogenes, the great philosopher and founder of Cynic philosophy. He was born here in Sinop, where I’ve been lazing at the beach since yesterday. The sign at the bottom of the statue says something in Turkish that I don’t completely (or even start to) understand and then gives in English his most famous quote, something in the lines of “would you mind stepping a bit to the left, you are blocking the sun”.

Not bad for a great philosopher, who said they spent all their time thinking about the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything? (the answer is 42, btw). No, they also spent time working their suntan. And when Alexandre the Great met Diogenes, he was so thrilled that he asked what, in his all-powerful greatness, he could do for Diogenes. Guess what the philosopher’s answer was? Right!

I also went into town this evening. Now I can confirme it, Turkish people really love to go out. It’s only Tuesday and admittedly we are at the seaside but the town was full of people walking around and sitting at bars having dinner and drinks. There was even a “game” bar where everyone was playing a game with numbered tiles (like rummy, burako or mahjong).

Game bar
People playing at the game bar

Sinop, Turkey

Into Asia

I heard the muezzin’s call and I knew I was somewhere else. The muezzin was calling for the Maghrib prayer just when I was arriving to María José and Gabriel’s apartment. It was a good sign, I like cities with muezzin calls.

There’s is so much to say about Istanbul and so little words, maybe the stupendous welcome from Gabriel and María José helped me perceive this city as I did (Thank you María José and Gabriel!!!). Maybe the city is just magnificent on its own. For a fan of maps, a city that spans over two continents is already something worthy of attention. You arrive on one side, let’s say Europe and you can leave from the other side into Asia.

The bridge to the other side
Bridge to Asia

The first day I stayed on the European side. No particular reason other than that the most well-known attractions are on that side, in that part of the city that is Istanbul proper. I visited, among other attractions, the blue mosque and Ayasofya. Amazing! In the evening we went to a local restaurant to taste the local specialties and it was very good but the shock was yet to come: we went for a walk after dinner into the crowded Istikal street. On a Thursday! It wasn’t even Friday. On the next day I went on my own only to be confronted with hordes of people walking on the same street. This city has such a vibe, there is parties everywhere, bars everywhere, restaurants, it’s just amazing.

The next day I decided to take the bike because I wanted to buy some Scottoiler oil. After the failure to do so in Bulgaria, I was hoping I had better luck in Istanbul. I did, in a way. The city’s road network is huge and there are urban highways connecting the neighborhoods all around and if you don’t know which to take or where to get out, you can ride for a long time and end up very far from where you intended to be. That’s exactly what happened and it took me at least 45 minutes to do what google says should take 14 minutes at most. I didn’t record it so you won’t see how I got lost and lost and lost all over again. There was also the traffic, manic as Neil accurately describes it on his blog. In the end I found the shop, got the oil, talked to the shop guys about bikes and travel and they sold me one more useful piece of kit. I was sort of looking for a new jacket because the one I have is too hot for this weather and they wanted to show me the cheapest one the had but they also showed me this, an air mattress for the bike seat. For having been already almost three weeks on the bike, I know it’s a much more important piece of kit than a summer jacket.

The third day I went on my own with the bike to the Grand Bazaar and managed to not get lost while getting there and to do get lost after 2 minutes inside. It’s almost a miracle I managed to exit through the same entrance and find the place where I had left the bike. That place is a maze! Whatever landmark you try to remember, you will find it somewhere else and realize it was a useless landmark. On the other hand, the secret to not getting lost while getting there is simple: I didn’t aim for the Grand Bazaar, I aimed for the Grand Bazaar OR Hagia Sophia. That way, when I got to one of them, I could say I didn’t get lost and got to my original destination. One of them at least.

Me and some flags
Me and some flags

This third day was also the extra day, it was July 14th and Gabriel had invited me, as soon as I got to Istanbul to the consulate party for Bastille day and since I am a good citizen, I accepted joyfully. That and the free wine, the free dinner (including pork cold cuts) and the chance to see where my tax money goes. If you are a French taxpayer and wonder where your money goes, now I can tell you: Into big awesome parties!

But I digress, better leave you with the Turkey photo album to see what I’m talking about.

Sinop, Sinop, Turkey

Bye bye Bulgaristan, hello Turtsiya

My day at the beach turned out to be a rainy day. And that’s an overstatement. It rained for 10 minutes, then it was covered for 1 hour, then it rained for 10 more minutes and then it was finally sunny until the end of the day. I read Kissinger’s book on China throughout the day and I’m loving it. Not much to say about a day at the beach so let’s skip to the road.

The next day, I left as shortly after breakfast as I could because I knew it was going to be a long day. And it was! The roads were beautiful mountain roads. The border crossing I had chosen was at the summit so I enjoyed the Bulgarian road to get there and the Turkish road to get into the country. Both were really beautiful, albeit the Turkish one being of much better quality. And that was where I learnt that I had entered the ‘stans much earlier than expected. It seems that in Turkish, many countries are ‘stans and that includes Bulgaria, my first ‘stan. :-D.

Another Turkish quirk is that gas stations don’t sell road maps but even without a map I took the small roads, confident that I would find my way and not counting with the hurricane level winds that slowed me down to 80kph and with my first real rain on the road that slowed me down to 50kph. It doesn’t matter, when you plan 1 full year of travel, you expect rain. It was refreshing but as soon as it stopped I started cooking again.

It was as uneventful as roads can be aside from an interesting form of road toll I experienced when I took the highway for the last bit into Istanbul. It looks like a toll, everybody behaves as if it is a toll but there’s no barrier and the booths don’t even cover the whole width of the road. Also, there are no humans to interact with and no credit card slots, only prepaid Turkish road toll card slots. What to do? Did I mention there was no barrier? And I skipped while hoping this was the usual way for foreigners to treat a road toll in Turkey.

It wasn’t. The next toll was the city entrance one and this one had real barriers and occupied the whole width of the road. Still no humans though. Well, no official humans anyway. Enter the guy selling “used” cards. He wanted to charge me 100TL (50 euro) for a card. In the end he ripped me off only 50TL for a card that had enough charge for a total of 3 road tolls. Not so bad since that is exactly how many times I plan to pay tolls while in Turkey. Let’s see how that works out.

I arrived in Istanbul right on time to the address I was given. I’m staying at a friend of my father’s house and they have welcomed me in their home with open arms. The days in Istanbul are supposed to be  my rest days, I’ll tell more of my great stay in this amazing city in a future post.

No pictures this time, I need to go to sleep. I made a couple of videos of the road though, they will be available when they are available.At the time of posting, one of the is being uploaded to Youtube and will be available here (cut the sound if you don’t care for listening to the wind):

Istanbul, Istanbul, Turkey