There was only one full day I could spend in Istanbul, so I was keen to get from Mustafa’s place to next nights hostel in the European half as quickly as possible so I’d have time to explore on foot. All my kit was still on the bike in an underground garage so, especially considering I’d fallen asleep fully clothed, I was primed for departure nearly as soon as I’d woken – throwing the jackets on, stuffing my feet into my deteriorating daily boots and grabbing my helmet. In the garage Mustafa was concerned with the pool of oil my bike had birthed during the night. It was the first I’d seen so it wasn’t worrying yet – it could be checked again after my ride to the hostel, once the oil would be hot and leaky again.
Google’s 24 minute driving directions were met with scepticism from the start, but I wasn’t prepared for the gauntlet (yes, I said gauntlet) ahead. A slow rolling thunder of traffic clogged the suspension bridge that had looked so beautiful the night before. Forget filtering lanes, because there are none. The same thunder clogged every other road I was talked into by my dickhead GPS, who was clearly getting more afflicted by the heat than me – and I was loosing my shit quickly. Remember I threw my jackets on? Well one of them was an insulated belay jacket, now little more than a wringably wet mess wedged between my armour and t-shirt. Open vents and visor did nothing to compensate as I sat trawling through traffic in the hot air. The brightness, heat, noise and reckless driving were building up to a heady exhaustion and palpable dizziness. I pulled up, ripped the helmet, jacket and boots off and sat in the shade trying to replace the litres of water lost into the sleeves of my jacket. It took a good 20 minutes before I felt recovered enough to go, after jamming my insulated jacket under the tie down straps holding my rucksack to the pillion seat. I figured out my own route from the GPS’s map, as the route had already tried leading me through impossible market bazaars and the wrong way down tram-only lanes. The on-the-fly route recalculations did little more than circle you round the block for attack wave two at the same immovable obstacle. I took the coast road, cooled by the fresh air and found the hostel after hitting a touristic road laced with restaurants after stopping for a quick chat with an Australian tourist information guy.
Two minutes later (an astonishing 2 hours after I left Mustafa’s place) I checked myslf into the hostel, visibly touched by heat exhaustion. The room wasn’t available for a couple of hours but the receptionist suggested a cold shower might soften the wild look in my eyes. I obliged and reborn in the cooling water I inquired about the must-sees of the European side.
This was Tourist-anbul. I grabbed my camera. Shit was about to get photogenic.
1. Blue Mosque
The mosque was only a 10 minute stroll through pleasant market roads from the hostel. It was hidden from view so all I could see was one big dome and some minarets stretching skywards. On the way there a street trader hassled me to buy a souvenir book. I told him I was already throwing stuff out, making it more comfortable for when Sarah has to sit on the back in a few days time. Bizarrely this panned out into a straight swap – my Sport Relief wristband, earned from an evening of charitable phone manning at Sarah’s mom’s work, for a book of 36 Istanbul postcards. Not sure who was the winner, but the guy left with a big smile of his face and a new trinket. Anyway, Tangent. The blue mosque is huge and beautiful so I pencilled in a look inside once I’d had chance to return home and put on Jeans. If you’re in shorts you have to wear a ridiculous sarong. I’m a dude, no sarong for me.
2. Mosque Sophia
I’d been warned off paying the not inconsiderable entrance fee for Istanbul’s most famous mosque. Takahiro had been in and said the Blue Mosque is more decorative (and free) so I skirted around the impressive building on my way to the Topkapi palace, home to sultans gone by.
3. The Topkapi Palace
Standing in line to buy a ticket while chatting to two Swiss ladies on a cruise, it was clear that the palace was pretty high on a tourists must-see list. I prepared for battle, practised my side steps, upper cuts, good form tackling and went in. They have a million and one security guards milling around and like right arseholes they ban you from photographing any on the cool/expensive shit they have on show there. Trust me when I say there are a few hefty 3 metre long swords that don’t exactly look BNWT (people used these?!?!) and some beefy 3 metre hand cannons. These guys must have been overcompensating for something. But the weapons are for men to gawp at – women can get giddy to the symphonies of 83 carat diamonds and shiny trinket things in the treasure room.
4. The Grand Bazaar
Quickly intimidating in sheer size but ultimately disappointing in its variety. If you want jewellery or knock off clothes and handbags you’re in the right place. Not much else.
Burning off the rest of my residual moisture to the humid air I rationalised I’d take a nap back at the hostel then return to the blue mosque after. I googled the mosque’s opening times (felt a bit weird that such monumental things can be prescribed opening times…) and resigned to leaving straight away instead – the afternoon visiting window was only an hour and a half wide and it could probably get very busy like everything else here. I was early, but the gathering crowds started to push past my cotch (place whence once chills, for all you oldies) on the stairs, desperate to get in. I had no fight in me and had to join the cue halfway back by the time the gates opened. Walking barefoot into the cavernous interior, roof held up by 10ft thick stone pillars and lights suspended just above head height on string I was awed. Propping myself up against one of the pillars I was quickly overcome by the cool air and quiet whisperings of the place and fell into a powerful doze for half an hour. On awakening I hoped the other guests would have woken me if I was snoring… but I was faced with a few knowing smirks that left me uncertain.
Exhausted from my nap I drank tea and used my camera to record no-point .gifs of people walking down the road. Some guy hollered from his carpet shop as I walked back to the hostel.
“You will be rich one day my friend, I can see it”
I countered with a “not fucking likely“. There was no room for a carpet on the bike.
The evening bought expensive food at the hostel rooftop bar which overlooked the harbour. By the time it arrived I was already too tired and/or drunk to stomach it, so I shovelled away the good stuff and left most of the 2ft wide bread that accompanied it. Before bed I scoured the internet for a halfway house between here and Montenegro as I now had two days to cover the distance. Pickings were pretty thin. That part of northern Greece had nothing but hotels that were too expensive for my amended budget, so I had to look a little further – into Macedonia. The search was finessed by my predicted ability to withdraw money. Online banking with Natwest requires a day difference to separate countries, booked online in advance. I relied heavily on my dwindling Turkish Lera to get me to the border with Greece, where I planned to spend some stashed Euros before withdrawing again prior to entering Macedonia. Enough to pay for petrol across into Albania and Montenegro preferably. A hostel in Bitolia, a small town by our standards, but the only place with a room I could pre-book online as I was expecting a late arrival. Macedonia it is. Long logistics sorted, sleep came easily.
After loading my bike and gearing up I pilfered through my wallet for change to pay the hostel. I was lower on Lera than I thought, so the receptionist let me bail out with Euro “all money is good money!” before I left. Even so it was going to be close on fuel. This lean approach had another benefit. If my bank card no longer worked in Turkey, as today my banking travel plans said I’d be in Greece, the border would have a hard time extracting my speeding fine from me and I might get off scot free. I’d heard of people getting a timed ban on re-entering Turkey but I had no intentions of coming back too soon, so I’d take that option if it came to it.
With a big ‘fuck you customs‘ under my wing I jumped back on the motorway leading West out of Istanbul. The next fuel stop was fairly close as I’d bled the tank low on my way in and night touring. I filled the tank and did some quick math – it was going to be closer than I though. Perhaps too close. I rubbed my satnav app at the petrol station, scouting for options. The motorway headed North West out of Turkey and into Bosnia. I couldn’t tell what territories the motorway heading south were in; They had Greek looking names, but the indicator on my GPS kept highlighting them as ‘Turkey’. It was without a doubt too far for my dwindling Lera if the latter were true. So I opted for the low road, a slow route through villages that should keep petrol down compared to a hash along the motorway and bring me to the border potentially sooner. Embark.
The tank indicator level dropped from five, to three to one flashing bar of fuel, indicating 20 miles left before running dry. I was about 35km out from the border (hopefully) but running lower efficiency with all my extra baggage. Pulling in front of the next petrol forecourt I thumbed through my wallet for Lera. Not even enough for the minimum two litres sold. Shit. With the prospect of running dry short of the border ringing in my ears I walked slowly up to the cashier and, after 5 or so minutes of holding my card, slicing thumbs across my neck, shrugging and thumb up – thumb down combinations, managed to get him to try the card. It was registered to be in Greece today, not Turkey so it was an anxious minute waiting for the reader to make a connection. Connection Made, Transaction approved. It appeared as though my bank had stopped giving a shit about which country I was in. I could fill up as much as I needed.
I rode out of there happy at least to make it back into Europe the relief was a double edged sword. Now, if the customers officer wanted to charge me for my not-even-rightfully-deserved speeding ticket or toll road fines they could. I wished the bank would give a shit about me again.
Then – the border. After rolling in behind 10 or so parked cars I got pretty tired sitting on a bench for two hours waiting for their computer system to uncrash itself. I didn’t have the time to waste here after dawdling my way through Turkey to get here. There was a Bosnian brick-shit house who told me he’d lived in Kent (the garden of England) for a while. I believed it. He was quite fluent with the words “cunt” and “mate”, even though I recall his only tale to be one of visiting his mother once every fortnight. I moved Candy Indy to the front of the queue to escape him. An old man gave me a bread roll from a carrier bag.
Then there was an aged, self-employed Dutch campsite inspector for whom ‘rally driving astronaught’ would be a beleivable addition to his astonishing list of past careers. Then there was a 20 something year old Macedonian girl, travelling with her parents, keen to tell me all the tourist hotspots of the Balkans. Thankfully, mid way through one of her mini-guides, everyone started to rush back to their cars and drive through to Greece’s checkpoint. The system was rebooted. I said my goodbyes and dashed to the tiny, grey plastic hatch to hand in my passport and bike registration. The others in front of me were quickly waved through. Picking up my documents, the customs officer tapped in certain details into his computer, looked up and raised an eyebrow. “Moto, yes?”
“Yeah, that one” I replied, pointing over my shoulder. This was the red flag I’d been expecting. A few more checks on my documents led to a phone call. I turned away, looking to the horizon in an attempt to seem disinterested. The others behind me checked their watches and huffed as I wasted their day. The customs officer seemed irate, put the phone down and looked at me.
“You can go”. I wasn’t wasting any time. Lid on, gloves on, keys in. It would be just my luck to be getting my shit together while a red flag for skipping toll gates popped up on his computer. Without a backwards glance I burned out of there to the next checkpoint where I was confronted with a completely disinterested Greek policeman. No sweat. I rode over a bridge guarded by armed military 15 year olds and hit the motorway feeling smug. How’s that Turkey? Suck your speeding fine!
Rather uncomfortably I bumped into Macedonian girl three more times at service stations and laybys during the next stint, exchanging less than a few words before moving on. The road, dry for the first tank or two, looked horrendous further down. Thick black sheets of rain descended from the clouds clustered around hillsides in front of me. On the outskirts, the drizzle was hard but then cease long enough for my jeans to dry out. Already let down by my “waterproof” trousers in Turkey, I didn’t stop to suit up fully. The insulated jacket was on already, just after it started to get cool.
Unfortunately there is little to tell about this leg in my journey, skipping through northern Greece as fast as possible, not seeing or doing anything other than getting progressively more uncomfortable and stiff. Although things changed as I pulled northwards of the motorway and weaved slowly up hillside forests, signposted for drivers to be alert for wild hogs and bears. The cold grey air contrasted harshly with the baking sun of Istanbul this morning and when the rain came it was less than welcome. I passed a signpost welcoming me to Macedonia, but there were no borders in sight. From there the surroundings became more rural and more derelict with each mile. I pulled into an isolated gas station having not seen anyone for over an hour. A man, too old for his dark blue tracksuit, came over to accept some Euros and I was back on the road. Occasionally the water laden tarmac bought me through avenues of bright yellow flowers at odds with the barren grey surroundings. My jeans swelled up with the shards of rain spat up from below and poured down from above.
As twilight progressed to night time small hamlets broke up the rolling farmlands until I was on my own on a dark country road heading towards another border.
This one, wooden, wet and dark, would take me into Macedonia. I pulled up to the only window with a customs officer and took my helmet off.
“Documents,” the greying but well groomed man said from behind his small desk. I took the passport and bike registration from my orange waterproof sack and handed them over. “No, no. Insurance, Green Card.” I dug a little deeper to find the crumpled bit of paper that was my insurance, only to be handed it back after inspection amongst more chimings of “No, green card, green card”. I thumbed through the wording carefully, ready to show the man the validation clause for the EU. Shit. It dawned. Macedonia wasn’t in the EU, I was out of luck. Oversight of the week.
” Can’t I just buy it here, at the border?” I confessed to not having it. He huffed before taking my passport, walking 10 metres and disappearing into an office round the back. Another officer with short but curly grey hair emerged with him a minute later and the trotted right up to me as I sat in the saddle, wet through under the orange lights in the forecourt.
“You don’t have insurance?” I shrugged and said I’d forgotten. “You need to park up here, walk over to that building and buy it.” He pointed to a cluster of sheds 50 metres away in Macedonia.A queue of cars had materialised behind me out of the night. “Come back with the documents and we’ll let you in.” Sweet, this was something I could do. I stood up from the bike and stretched before trudging my wet mass through the dark to the huts. The hard drizzle made it hard to see exactly where to aim and the darkness was oppressive. Closing in, a man with one large eye and scars on his face said something strong to me in Macedonian. I nodded, finding it hard to look past the poorly illuminated receding red hair and grizzly beard and continued slogging to the hut.
“I need to buy insurance” I told three men sheltered in doorways. “Customs told me I could get it here.” One guy stood up and walked left to a cabin drenched in overly white light from buzzing fluorescent bulbs, beckoning me to follow. You could hear droplets hammering on the corrugated roof. He took a seat in front of his computer and cluttered desk then explained to me the options. There was only one – buy 15 days insurance for €55.
I tried to explore an option two, 55 Euros seemed pretty steep considering I was going to be here one day. But every time I probed him further his English would disintegrate and we’d end up back at square one. Tiredness prevailed, the world felt heavy. I agreed to meet his price after 10 minutes of failed negotiations. It left me with 10 Euros in my wallet, no Lera and only a little petrol, but the thought of being warm sometime today backed my decision to acquiesce such a hefty demand. I handed over my documents and he scratched some details down onto a small piece of paper, made me sign it and take it away.
Back under the orange lights the cars queuing had disappeared and I was alone at the window, handing over my new insurance. It was handed back to me and I was told I’m free to go. Candy Indy, rested during my wanderings, roared into life and carried me into Macedonia as I slumped across her handlebars. A little further down country roads and Bitolia arrived in clusters of Petrol stations, bars and closed shops. It was about half 10 at night, the rain had been thundering down for an hour or so. More orange light, this time from lampposts, illuminated the road surface. Water streamed across from the gutters. Looking down to my tank bag the bright glow of my phone navigated me somewhere close to Bitolia’s centre square where I pulled up next to a shaded park. I couldn’t find the address for the hostel and flicked panicked through my tablet for screenshots of the hostelworld booking page. It wasn’t there, but resolved I checked again the history of my GPS software and located it saved as a favourite. Hunched over to protect the screen I set the route and followed it twice past the hostel, which had nothing to distinguish it from any other house. Happy with a cross reference from the booking screenshot, I opened a door to what could have just been a house and walked up some stairs that might have been someone’s stairs. Dripping everywhere I pushed open a door and smiled at the two faces looking up at me from what might have been someone’s living room. “Hostel?”
“You must be Tom.” I sighed a long deep sigh.
It was a long hot shower. My back, knees, neck and elbows needed it for the knots that had worked themselves inside the joints. Afterwards I was dry for the first time in about 5 hours and hunger thumped its way into my stomach. Eating had fallen down the priority list. Hillary, my chilled out Kiwi dormmate assured my my Euros were worthless and I realised I had currency researched Montenegro by accident. Shit. I hoped my bank still didnt give a shit about my account security.
She loaned me a bright pink umbrella to head once more I to the night in search of a good meal and under the guidance of the hostel owner I headed down the surprisingly busy main strip, crawling with bar go-ers, to the ‘Barrel Inn’ (though the name wasn’t much use as it was in Macedonian..) for Cheese in the Oven – a kind of cheese, milk, egg, tomato and bacon combo served with two hefty slices of sesame seed flat bread and two pints. I’d managed to withdraw 2000 Denar from an ATM, after feeling terrified at the size of withdrawal amounts. I rationalised that I could always get more (unless my bank became dickheads) so opted for the second from the lowest amount displayed on screen. Between funding and eating I’d managed to ask a local for the euro to denar conversion, so while I sat watching the nightlife I ran the calculation in my head to estimate meal costs. About £9. I was disappointed that Macedonia wasn’t cheaper than England and resigned to flip flopping back through puddles to the hostel, under my pink umbrella.
Laying down in my comfortable top bunk I recounted the maths to Hillary, confused. We both ran conversions over Google. £3.30 was the actual cost for the night. I was overcome with a warm glow of victory.
Macedonian customs may have bled me for 55 Euros worth of insurance but here I was, sleeping in their cheap beds, eating their cheap, delicious food when I needed it most. Take that Macedonia. Sleep came easily.