It’s been something of a very hectic two weeks. Weeks consisting of days so stacked with weird and wonderful memories I feel the need to imminently scribble down before they disappear from my mind completely. At the end of it though, I’m in Istanbul, Constantinople, Byzantium, currently just separated from the start of a new Asian continent by a mere hundred meters of blue Bosphorus water. My traversing of Europe in the winter has all but come to a close. Icicles are safely a distant memory and learning new word for ‘beer’ and ‘thank you’ every couple of days as we cross a new border will be banished to the past also. The first section of the trip has totalled 2700 miles (4300 km) across 16 countries and already and has genuinely surpassed all prior expectations. I set off with my mindset ready to endure pure hell on the bike for the first three months, telling myself that I would not quit in the first six weeks, and refusing to make any large, trip altering decisions if i was hungry, cold or wet. Thankfully I have yet to enter into that dark headspace, but Europe has definitely tested my mettle both physically and mentally, as will always be the case when enduring, I mean enjoying, a long distance bike trip.
Arriving at the hostel in Sofia off the back of a glorious week riding alongside the Danube, we were in need of a good rest. Obviously this meant celebrating entering a new country with new friends who were fresh off the plane having taken the sensible route to Bulgaria. Jacks friend Dave had flown his bike out and was set to join us riding to Istanbul the following week. We all immediately hit it off, talking about the stupid things we’d seen over the past week and previous trips we’d been on. Soon the hostel was buzzing and resting was the last thing on our minds. This would turn out to be a classic ‘school boy’ error on my part, but I’ll blame my naivety on my age whilst I still can eh!
The next day was a carbon copy of the previous evening, although we had graduated from cheap beer to cheaper wine which was given to us as a gift from some kind Danes. One thing was missing however. Dave. We had not seen the guy all day and come the evening darkness, his ginger hair was nowhere to be found. Finally I received a call from an incredibly laid-back David Jones saying he’d gone for a walk with a girl from the hostel up a nearby mountain, as you do, and got into a bit of trouble trying to negotiate through the knee-high snow, but not to worry as they’d found a road if we could call them a taxi. Being the good friends that we are we laughed our heads off down the phone and duly called for an emergency taxi to pick him up, ‘on the mountain next to a radio tower’. With a helping hand on our part, word about Dave’s escapade had quickly spread round the hostel and when two dishevelled faces appeared throughout the front door, everyone stood to give them a suitable standing ovation. ‘I suppose ankle socks wasn’t the best decision for today’ remarked Dave, ‘although I probably made a few more questionable ones thinking about it…’. By this point Dave’s story demanded sizeable audience, all captivated by his recalling sliding down a sheet of ice, scared for falling off a cliff. Agreeing that all our days paled in comparison, we duly called him an idiot and offered up some cheap wine to warm him up.
Following that hilarious night, I decided to stitch together a route to avoid the worst of the infamous Istanbul traffic for when we finally decided to head off. It seemed that wouldn’t be for a while, as the hostel grapevine was buzzing with fresh ideas of a road trip to see some Soviet monuments the following day. Of course we were game. I quickly found myself being coerced into being the ‘main’ driver, as I apparently had the most experience at driving large cars on the wrong side of the road in manic traffic… Brilliant.
The next morning I fired up the battered Opel and weaved like a salmon through the city traffic that seemingly obeyed no rules. The Bulgarian driving mentality came as no surprise having previously cycled into the city, but watching a tram driver stop his train full of people between two stops so he could pop to the bakery to grab a roll was enough to initiate howls of laughter. This laughter continued as the Ukulele made an appearance and the track ‘We’re in Plovdiv’ was conceived and then repeatedly belted out by all seven of us. Unsurprisingly Plovdiv was to be our first stop where we were to check out a particularly brutish collection of large concrete surfaces said to be a ‘monument’. A friend from the hostel, Alex explained that he is taking pictures for a book he hopes to make about these old soviet monuments. He travels around eastern Europe capturing decaying soviet architecture and today we were apparently going to see something very special. Buzludzha is a huge concrete UFO built by the Bulgarian communist party atop of a 1400 m mountain. It looks out over where the Bulgarian rebels fought a heroic battle against a much larger Ottoman force in 1868. It was used as an epic venue for their events and has an incredible dystopian air about it.
Currently the building has fallen into disrepair and consequently isn’t open to the public, but if you work your way around its sullen concrete walls there is an opening in the floor which you can lower yourself into. The small shaft leads to some precarious wood beams laid on top of rusting metal equipment that brings you down into the basement of the building. It was pitch black and the whole floor was covered in sheet ice which made for some bambi like moments with legs slipping all over the place and Nadia hitting the deck at one point. We carefully made our way through the dark corridors, diligently avoiding the sizeable holes in the floor, we weren’t in the mood to take short cuts between. The main room of the building is a large amphitheatre complete with mosaic murals of Bulgarias socialist founders and influential politicians of the time. The faded colours, semi collapsed roof and piles of rubble give the whole place a rugged feel and easily makes it the coolest building I’ve ever visited.
After a few hours following the least direct route back to Sofia we arrived at the hostel. Almost immediately I realised I was not in good nick and retired myself to the dorm. Vowing this bout of nausea would be sorted by the next day, the boys, who had both found some female interest, didn’t take much convincing to stay one extra day whilst my body sorted itself out. An extra day came and went with us finally mounting the saddle after five days in Sofia. Having managed to consume an extensive range of food, consisting of two bread rolls and one banana over the previous two days, I knew I was in for a battle. Held together entirely by Imodium, I slowly led us out of the city streets in the lashing rain. Speed was not to be in my repertoire, and as we reached the city limits I told the boys to carry on at their own pace and for me to catch them up. Today was to be a personal battle of mind over body, but body was definitely winning. Counting my lucky blessings that we were only riding 30 miles to a couch surf, I slowly pedalled onwards.
In Bulgaria people shake their head to mean ‘yes’ and nod for ‘no’; this is damn confusing. Negotiating this strange cultural difference, we located our couch surf for the night where we were told to let ourselves in and watch their Netflix until they returned. They being a Kiwi couple, Michael and Louisa were some of the most laidback hosts we’d had and quickly insisted that I stayed a few more days until I’d made a full recovery. The next day I waved goodbye to the boys who cycled off into the freshly laid snow with the plan of catching them up in Istanbul. I got stuck into a few books and after two more days with the Mitchels I was ready to carry on. Another layer of snow came and went under my wheels as winter maintained its icy grip over my trip so far. Thick freezing fog blanketed the hills forcing me to turn my lights on to evade the passing Bulgarian bumpers. Needing some serious motivation to climb these hills, I got stuck into some weighty techno from the french connoisseur Roman Poncet and put down what little ‘gas’ I had left. Soon escaping the thick mountain fog I was treated to yet another of Bulgarias amazing vistas. This country is somewhat surprisingly one of the most beautiful I’ve ridden through and I vowed to come back and explore more of it rugged mountains and stunning lakes. That evening I wasn’t feeling like camping and had booked myself in for my first hotel of the trip in Pazrdzhik. Feeling slightly guilty that I was shunning my nomadic lifestyle that had whisked me through Europe on a shoestring, I quickly overcame the feeling and enjoyed my night of relative luxury.
Sidenote – for everyone that keeps asking how I’m affording this, it’s very simple, a combination of couch surfing and camping almost every night means you pretty much only have to pay for food; oats for breakfast, rice for lunch and rice for dinner. This works out around a tenner a week, not bad. Add little treats, fruit and veg or local bakery produce accordingly but these are often pennies. If I can’t find a couch surf in a city, then hostels outside of western Europe cost as little as £5 per night including breakfast and are genuinely decent places buzzing with life.
Heavy snow fell the following morning with the large flakes being driven horizontally by a howling headwind. For the first 20 miles I could barely see out of my squinting eyes as more ice crystals helpfully embedded themselves in my corneas. The wind reduced me to a frustratingly slow pace and was forecast to continue on throughout the day, as was the snow. Hands and feet soaked, I feebly made my way into Lidls periodically to grab a pastry and warm up before mounting the Brooks again. It was to be a day of attrition as I rode 70 miles, inching my way east towards the Greek border, eventually stopping in the city of Haskovo. Here I’d found a couchsurf in the form of Terri. A seasoned traveller if ever I’d met one, she’d hitchhiked through Africa, Asia, South America whilst also finding time to cycle up to the north cape. After whisking me out of the snow and into one of the many imposing communist blocks of flats, she told animated stories of fighting off Serbian gypsies attempting to rob her in the night. Hearing this I was damn happy I’d already ridden through Serbia!
The next day was to be a big one. Three border crossings and two new countries ending up in Edirne, Turkey. I set off early the next morning, something I do enjoy being able to do when on my own as I really relish the early hours on the bike. Soon the harsh urban contours of Bulgarias crumbling houses gave way to pristine white casitas complete with terracotta roofs. I was in Greece! Excited like a vegan in a veg patch, I eagerly lapped up the sun and smooth roads powering the bike further into the country. I found myself on an empty dual carriage way, happily watching the miles tick by and whooping in joy as I descended he hills with no hands. The day couldn’t be more contrasting with the previous and I was back to loving bike touring again. It turns out I did the same milage as the day before but an hour and a half quicker of actual riding time without the headwind.
I was riding on at such a pace that I’d overtaken Jack and Dave who’d left two days before me, but I didn’t realise as I stopped for some fruit close to Turkish border that they then overtook me back, passing one street behind where I was eating. Reaching the Greek half of the Turkish border the guard told me that two Brits on bike had just passed through here 10 minutes ago. Energised to try catch them up, I scooted through no mans land, which consisted of free roaming peacocks and a large amount of Turkish artillery. Rounding the corner I glanced the unmistakable sight of loaded bikes and Dave’s ginger hair. I’d caught them at the border, it was like a scene from a film. Smiles all round I was excited to be riding with the boys again. Dave’s phone has run out of charge so he was sheepishly standing next to a rather impatient border guard with a power bank in hand, waiting for the thing to burst back into life to prove he had indeed got an e-visa.
Riding into Turkey, it was immediately obvious we were in another land. Animals roamed free, the streets were packed with frenzied drivers shouting, and mosques blared out afternoon prayers across the land. I loved it. For the first time I felt as though I’d truly entered into a different culture. Crossing the stone bridges into Edirne, minarets of the mosques stood proud on the skyline as the city buzzed with life below it. I had a feeling that I was going to like Turkey. Soon we said our goodbye’s and went our separate ways to stay with our couch surfs for that evening. I was staying with Melike, a student here in the Edirne originally from Izmir. Immediately we got on like a house on fire and she soon rounded up some friends to show me a bit of the city. I messaged the boys who brought their hosts along and soon we had a sizeable group for some drinks. Some of them had tickets to see a famous Turkish pop group that night so I decided to spontaneously buy a ticket and joined them to hear some ‘emotional pop’. Dancing about not understanding anything, the night was hilarious and it was surreal to think that I had been riding through wet snow in Bulgaria that morning.
It turns out me and Melike have similar tastes in electronic music and a DJ we both liked was playing in Istanbul the following week. We decided to get together our friends once we arrived in the city and vowed to all hang out. This is what I love about travelling and couch surfing especially, spontaneous plans with people you barely know, seeing things you would never otherwise. I was shattered the next morning, and to add to my pains it was snowing again outside, plus I’d managed to trip the electricity to Melike’s flat after she left. After half an hour fumbling and swearing around the stairwells of this Turkish apartment block, I finally located the tripped switch and could cook my trusty oats.
It was to be a sluggish morning riding across the city to find the boys before heading for the city limits. The mercury has dropped from 20 above the previous day down to 0 and we were all feeling the cold. Once again a headwind battered us from the north and straight roads made their way over a series of morale sapping hills. From the top of one you could see the next ridge and the one after that, it was soul destroying. We all plugged into our music and silently rode on into the snow which soon turned to rain. Making little headway we pulled into a local village, immediately finding ourselves the centre of attention of everyone at the chai house. Unaccustomed to such attention, we went across the road into the kebab shop and discovered the joys of truly cheap food. Two of the best doner kebabs I’d ever eaten for 75p plus the guys threw in a couple of cups of Turkish chai (tea) for free. This was to be a sign of great hospitality and food to come.
The rest of the day was a bit miserable if I’m honest, we crawled along a despairingly straight road, feeling all our energy whisked away by the wind as our fingers curled in protest to the cold and hoods sounded with the noise of pattering rain. Thankfully the rain ceased as we entered Kirklareli and the locals immediately showed us where to find the best Borek (a lovely but greasy local delicacy in Turkey and eastern Europe). Now full, we decided to try our luck to see if we could sleep in a mosque that night. Soon a few men rang around calling the important members of the mosque to see if that would be possible. Encouraged by this, we got some more chai and chatted to the local people who were trying to help us out. Unfortunately we were told we couldn’t stay that night but they promised to barter with a hotel for us to get us a cheap nights stay. They got us a great deal and we soon retreated to the warmth of our room.
The following day followed suit. Headwind and hills but at least there was no snow and we could ride without gloves. Dave’s legs were understandably aching at this point as he’d gone from not riding at all to riding everyday with panniers for the last week. We looked to see if there would be a place worth spending a day between here an Istanbul, which at our current pace would be three days of riding, but found nothing of interest. We rode onwards, enjoying our breaks in passing villages as Turkish people soon became our favourite out of any country, offering us chai and constantly having a laugh at our attempts at the language. Later that afternoon we stopped at the side of the road, shortly after a woman began talking to us in Turkish out of her kitchen window, we had no idea what she was saying and replied with the usual, ‘cycling, London to Sydney, cycle to Istanbul’. She closed the window and a minute later came over with a tray of traditional Turkish sweet pastries. They were stunning, the best thing I’d ever tasted. Buoyed by this random act of kindness, we thanked her using the only Turkish words we actually know and rode on past Saray and into the surrounding forest. Camping that night was refreshing and a good laugh as Dave discovered his tent was shorter than both him and his thermorest. We made a fire from mostly wet wood, listening to sounds of wild dogs and wolves as they howled throughout the woods.
Woken by the sound of the mosques morning prayers, we made our earliest start as a trio, hitting the road at a brisk 10 o’clock. As the day progressed, the straight road graduated to an interesting winding thing, making riding once again fun. Sizeable hills weaved through green forests before giving way to fields. The road quickly became a three-lane motorway and we were forced onto the hard shoulder as large trucks hurtled past. The surface was smooth and I started to press ahead, pushing my biggest gears with a smile on face in the Turkish sun, I was having a great time. Grabbing yet another chai and cheap pastry for dinner, we pushed our bikes through the thick clay that covered the floor and into a small thicket off the side of the motorway. Jack had snapped his tent pole the night before and with the sun beaming down on us, he decided not to fix it up again tonight, opting to sleep outside in his sleeping bag. I told him to hop in my tent if it rained but that looked unlikely as we went to bed. A few hours passed before the heavens opened but there was no sign of Jack wanting to get in my tent.
Waking the following morning he was still out there, covered in a poncho which apparently kept him dry for an hour or so before he ended up getting soaked. Quickly he packed his wet things before we’d properly stirred and made for the warmth of the nearest chai house.
Today was to be the day we rode into Istanbul. The sun was shining and we were all in need of a rest. Tearing down the motorway hard shoulder became ever more dangerous as the traffic consisted entirely of trucks filled with aggregate which were helping build bits of the motorway and a new airport. Frequent dust clouds spread across the motorway and lazy drivers drifted into our hard shoulder, stirring up up the dust, engulfing and concealing us from view it became pretty sketchy at times. Thankfully we turned off the motorway, riding into dense forests before we saw it. The Bosphorus. The waterway the connect the Black sea to the Mamara, which signals the end of Europe and the start of Asia. That was it, my first continent of the trip was complete. Europe in the winter was no more! It felt like a real milestone had been reached, I had cycled across Europe. Looking over at Asia, we cycled down the Bosphorus, making our way past huge yachts and fancy restaurants. All of a sudden the driving and traffic hit new lows. Smacking my hands on the back of vans blindly reversing onto the road and into our path became the norm and I found myself almost constantly spouting verbals at these idiot drivers. More than once a window was wound down and some very British insults were traded against a sea of Turkish complaints. It was chaotically crazy, but at the same time exciting. When the light went green you went for it, avoiding cars that would pull out at the last second, weaving past drivers who ignored red lights or reversed down main roads (yes, they are mental). After an hour of this I was glad to reach the hostel. Hi fives all round, we were in Istanbul alive and had crossed Europe.
Istanbul quickly became one of my favourite cities, the intense hustle and bustle, good cheap food and quirky bars. You couldn’t ask for more. I took Tina to get a good service and started to explore the mosques with new friends from the hostel. Soon it was Friday, which meant it had been a week since I’d couch surfed with Melike, and today she was making her way into the city with her friends for the gig. I rounded up 10 people from the hostel and we descended on the city, staying until a stupid hour it was one of the best nights of the trip and one we’d talk about for the following days. after this good weather graced the city for the next few days as I enjoyed just relaxing for the first time in weeks. I took in a bit of the cities culture and to end things on a high, we all climbed onto the hostel roof to watch an epic sun set over the city.
Watching the sun fall behind the mosques cemented Istanbul as one of my favourite cities. I now find my bike prepped and feeling of nervous excitement in my stomach for what lies ahead. Tomorrow I cycle into Asia, and I cannot wait.