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.

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):

In Bulgaria, all the roads lead to

the highway!

Here’s the road I took from Sofia to Sunny Beach. I’m posting it here so that you can zoom in as I tell you what happened.

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I pleaded not to take highways anymore and with that in mind I set off. After trying and failing to get Scottoiler oil in Bulgaria (the official dealer seems to think that selling the thing is enough and doesn’t stock oil), I went to Tatiana’s workplace to give her back the keys of the appartment (Thanks Tatiana!). That’s where it all starts. I had said before (to Tatiana, btw) that it is easier to get lost in cities than outside of cities. Silly me! It’s just as easy.

She gave me a couple of indications on how to get to the road from the center but I wasn’t worried: the signs saying “tsentar” had taken me to the center and to her office and I was sure that other signs, hopefully blue ones, would take me out of the city. And yes, I said blue ones. See, contrarily to France, in Bulgaria the highway signs are green and the national roads signs are blue. I knew that already when I came from Romania so no confusion there, thought I. There are two roads leading to Burgas, roads 6 and 8, pretty much of the same length. I had decided to take road 8 and see Plovdiv and Stara Zagora on the way so I went on to leave the city by the highway. I knew I had to use the highway to get out of the city quickly, I glanced at the map and decided that I would ditch it as soon as I saw signs for Novi Han and I did… only to find myself in the midst of (amateur?) road blocks made of piled up dirt in the middle of the road. This is what you see on the map when it look like I took two roads at the same time. I went there, tried to continue and finally turned myself around after going around the 5th or 6th road block.

And I turned back so inexpertly that I ended up on road 6. But I didn’t want to take road 6. I lost some time buy finally managed to be on my way again. It was highway until Ihtiman then. At Ihtiman I tried to ditch the highway again, got lost in the town, found a kebab shop, asked some guy who directed me to his friend who did speak English who finally told me how to get out of the town and take the small road to Plovdiv. And I had my kebab of course. I followed that road happily for a short while until I saw a blue sign (Blue, national road!) indicating Plovdiv to the right. Where did I end up? On the highway again! Arghhh!!!

Ok, ok, calm down, it’s not so bad. After all you are already late, a little highway won’t hurt. You’ll ditch it again in Plovdiv. That’s what I was telling myself all the way to Plovdiv and I did. At Plovdiv I managed to enter the town, go through the center and leave the town without taking the highway. Only I wasn’t on the road I wanted to be. At the first town I looked at the map and saw I was on a much smaller road than the one I wanted to take. I slowed down so abruptly that the car behind me thought that I had a problem and stopped some 20 meters ahead of me. Some guy came out of the car and I couldn’t hear what he wanted. Instead of keeping telling myself that he was pissed off by my sudden stop, I turned off the engine and finally could hear him say “Vous parlez français ?”. Together we figured out where I was and I decided to stay on that road.

It was an interesting experience for a couple of kilometers, the road was excellent in the surroundings of some towns and immediately became pothole paradise in the surroundings of other towns. That wouldn’t have been so bad if it hadn’t run absolutely parallel to the highway. I took the highway. No use being on the highway without the benefits of the highway.

Finally, in Chirpan, I actually managed to take road 66 or 6 and not end up on the highway. I got lost in Stara Zagora but still managed to stay on road 8 and not the highway. If you look at the map now you will see why it was so easy: there is no more highway after Stara Zagora. Until there is. And you join it automatically and have no other option near Karnobat.

By then, it was 7pm, I was tired and had decided it was time to rest. Bad luck, there was no gas station or rest area at all for at least 40 minutes. Finally rested, I undertook the final stretch to Burgas and Sunny Beach and got to the hostel safely.

That, dear friends is what the road feels like. On a bad day.

Bulgaria

Glass of rakia
A glass of Pomoriska a day…
Shopska salata
…just keeps the salad good company

Now that I’ve had my Shopska salata with a glass of rakia, I can say I’m officially in Bulgaria. Ah! Such good memoires!

A short explanation is in order. This is rakia, R-A-K-I-A. It is Bulgarian and has nothing to do with Turkish raki, that’s the next country I’ll visit, I’m not there yet. Rakia is not anise flavored. That’s why I like it so much :).

When in Rome, do as the Romans and when in Bulgaria… well, drink rakia with your salad at the beginning of the meal. I learnt that on my first trip to Bulgaria in 2007. I love rakia so much I might as well buy a bottle for the road.

Oh, and how could I forget the main dish, Meshana skara, the typical Bulgarian mixed grill. Made mainly of pork meat, it sort of reminds me of home in Argentina where a barbecue always includes a bit of everything.

Meshana Skara
Just about everything that was on the grill goes on the plate
 UPDATE:

That was dinner but my lunch was also interesting. A bit lost (post to come), I stopped at a small village and had the awesomest döner kebab ever (dyuner in Bulgarian). All the more awesome because it cost me 1.5 leva (0.75€). When I decided to take a picture, I realized they had a promo of 2 döners for 2 leva. I wasn’t that hungry anyway. It was here:

Kebab shop
2 döner for 2 leva

Warnings

I’ve been warned. Don’t sleep there said the hostel lady in Cluj-Napoca when I told her that I planned to go to Sofia by the shortest road and spend the night in Craiova. What about Caracal? No. Slatina? Maybe, why don’t you spend the night in Pitesti? Pitesti is only 140km away from Brasov, that would take me nowhere.

White Church
Cluj-Napoca’s white church behind the abundant aerial cabling

When I got to Brasov I asked a similar question to the hostel guy and he said about the same or worse, it was more like: no, don’t stay in Slatina either, that is the most dangerous part of Romania. If I were you, I would speed through it and get to Sofia, there’s no telling how the adjacent Bulgarian side would be.

Some biker
Strange biker in Cluj

Both times the reason was the same: that’s Rom region. Rom, gipsy, tsingari, egyptians. Who are they and why are they feared that much? I guess I will not find out by going into their region of the country. I have rearranged my route, heading another piece of Romanian advice: “don’t go to the beach in Romania, go in Bulgaria”. Really, what is it with Romanian beaches? I guess I won’t find out this time either. This morning I’ll head to Bucarest and then to Sofia from there. Pity to take such a detour but it will give me the chance to spend the night in Bucarest.

Today was a sort of short riding day but the day before was long. I’m starting to feel the road on my bones and muscles and I will welcome the shorter riding tomorrow and the rest days in Bulgaria and Istanbul. The road was even nicer than the previous days with trees on the side providing some shade but there was a lot of road work that slowed the traffic a lot. The fact that it’s a twisting single-lane road with lots of trucks that you can’t overtake without putting someone’s life in danger (the motorcyclist’s usually) doesn’t make it any faster but I’ve found a solution for taking pictures on the way. Actually, the camera was inside 2 layers of bags up to now and taking it out for picture taking was a drag. Now it’s just in my tank bag without any particular other bag and taking pictures is as easy as stopping by the side of the road, opening the helmet, opening the bag and pushing the shutter button. I don’t even need to open the helmet if I don’t care what’s in the picture and what isn’t :P. Or I could use LiveView. Hum, there’s an idea!

Somewhere along the road to Brasov I saw a sign indicating a fortified evangelical church and I followed the 6km dirt track leading to a small village (Valchid was the name), which must have been enjoying a collective nap to get them through the scorching heat of midday (Seriously, who rides in this heat? Me) because I couldn’t see anyone and of course the fortification was closed, that’s what fortifications are for. Out of the blue came a car with a Netherlands plate and the driver asked me if I was up to what I was up to and said he would ask the keykeeper to come open the church. Not even a minute later I was entering the fortification and the church. That was some sight! The church was not particularly beautiful or anything. It’s just that there was the walls and the church, very close to each other. Inside the fort, there was only the church, nothing else. Strange thing to build, I must remember to read why they did that. I tried to ask in what passes for Romanian in my head (it’s most certainly not Romanian) when was the church built. I didn’t understand the answer. Once at the hostel, I tried numbers in Google Translate and now I think he said XVI or XVII century.

Fortified church
The church’s outside shell

Today, I also chose the roads that were marked “of scenic interest” on the map. The map conveniently omits to say that they are not of asphalt interest, especially the road from Iernut to Medias but it’s alright. At some point the quality of the roads is going to start to fall, it might as well be now :|.

Bike in town
Some biker came to wake the town up