Sunday – 15/01/17
It felt unreal, a huge bag on my back, taking a final picture with my parents before my mum drove me to the train station. I had a one way ticket to Istanbul, this was really happening, and it was happening right now. All the preparation was over, now was the time to get going. The last year or so of prep focussed down to this point. I said goodbye to my mum and got on the train from Shropshire to Hurst Green. On the train down I felt excitement and fear and unknown feelings welling up inside me, but they were put to the back of my mind when I arrived and I was greeted by a familiar face. I stayed with my friend Katie close to Gatwick as I had a morning flight the next day. We had a great dinner with some friends, we discussed the walk, people asked about the various difficulties that I might face, the weather, the animals, the solitude. I was still full of bluster – I laughed off the difficulties – I could laugh and joke about everything because it still didn’t really feel real yet. I was still amongst friends, in a warm house, just outside the M25, having a beer and a laugh.
Next morning Katie dropped me off at the airport, and the strong feelings I had felt on the train came back with a vengeance, growing all the while as I made my way through security and toward the gate. Once we had boarded and I was sat in my seat, the feelings reached a fever pitch. Externally I think I looked much the same as ever, perhaps except for a long periods of blankly staring off into nothingness. But internally I could feel an indistinct power surge in the pit of my stomach, sort of like butterflies, sort of like static electricity. I suppose it is adrenaline doing its stuff, and un-necessarily getting me ready to fight someone, or to run away, when I am just sat on a plane with 4 hours sat in one place ahead of me. We are always wary of the unknown, and I was facing many unknowns. My logical brain was confident everything would turn out alright once I got going, and I really had done as much preparation as I reasonably could. But that didn’t free me from the doubts – what if its -30 and a gale is rising and your tent has blown away, what if you run out of food, what if, what if, what if……. The emotional part of my brain was in turmoil. After an hour or so of intense staring at nothing and marvelling at the unusual excess of feeling, I realised that the time window for fitting in the last english language film I would see in a while was fast closing. I flicked on the inflight entertainment, and let “The Big Short”soothe away my adrenaline overload (Incidently a great film = I heartily recommend it)
On arrival at Atatürk the feelings are all gone, and I just have to concentrate on immediate tasks – getting into town and to my Airbnb room. I get a shuttle to Taksim Square, take an obligatory selfie in front of the “Monument of the Republic”, and work my way through strange streets to find my Airbnb room, and landlady inside to welcome me to Istanbul. My landlady was very helpful and knowledgeable, the room is spartan, but clean, and functional. I head out for a kebab (the first of many) and come back. My landlady asks if I want to drink the wine I brought as a present – obviously I do – and we stay up fairly late chatting about the state of the country (could be better…), and our own personal situations. She is the first of many Turks I meet who are more than happy to share their political views, which I have to admit I was a little surprised about – by just reading BBC News, I had the impression that Turkey was swiftly becoming a police state, I now realised this is far from the truth, at least when it comes to personal conversations. My landlady pointed out that the government doesn’t care about personal conversations, you only become a target if you have some kind of influence, as an opposition politician or an independent minded journalist, that you might slip into the governments sights.
The first several days of my time in Istanbul I have to admit I was a little depressed. I had lots of logistical things to attend to (setting up this blog, buying final supplies, making maps of the turkish part of the walk, drawing UTM grid lines on the appalling maps I had managed to acquire for the Bulgarian mountains) which weighed on my mind as needing to be completed, and which keep me inside; the weather when I do venture out is invariably grey and drizzly, and i just feel – deflated and unsure of myself. It’s partly driven by the fact that I wander round town several times on errands which seem impossible to resolve, like finding decent maps, or a decent print shop. This general malaise lasts exactly 4 days, when it breaks as suddenly as it came. I had finally found a guide-book for the turkish part of my walk, which had the best maps available; they were absolutely abysmal, completely unsuitable for any kind of navigation, no grid lines, no colour, no contours. At this point I came ot the conclusion that I wouldn’t be able to buy any maps for Turkey, and would have to just make them myself. This I managed to do (Using an internet mapping program (GaiaPro), Print Screen, and Powerpoint), and in doing so realised I was now freed of ever having to wander round foreign cities in circles looking for good walking maps (which don’t exist), as all I needed was an internet cafe and a printer. I also had a lucky break being taken to a print shop (in an unmarked building, up several flights of stairs, through and unmarked door) with an A0 scanner who could scan my Bulgarian maps (which were now priceless due to the 16 or so hours I had spent meticulously drawing on the UTM gridlines – I really didnt want to lose them now). I fair skipped out of the print shop, almost all of my logistical tasks were done and I was free to enjoy Istanbul’s formidable tourist offerings before getting out on the road.
21/01/17 – Saturday
My one proper tourist day, the sun comes out and I walk from Taksim towards the historic centre (Sultanahmet). My heart fair sings, the Turks are out in force enjoying the weekend, young couples taking selfies, crowds gathered round buskers, and street entertainers, crowds thronging the cafe’s and bars, and me wandering through it all with a spring in my step, detached from everything, but happy nonetheless. Tomorrow I will start the walk. Today I do the key tourist sights which it would be a crime to miss after almost a week spent in Istanbul. I start with the Hagia Sophia, which is still just about the most incredible thing I have ever seen (I had been 6 years before, but was astonished all over again). It was completed in 537 AD, and was the largest cathedral in the world for 1000 years. It has survived almost 1500 years situated in one of the most tectonically active regions of the world. It has viking runic graffiti inside (“Bjorn was here 967” or something – when he got there it was already ancient – over 400 years old). And to walk around it you cannot just be staggered by the scale of it. If someone built it today you would be blown away by it, and the Byzantines built it all that very long time ago.
After the Hagia Sophia I went to the Basilica Cisterns, the huge underground water reservoir the built in the 6th century AD, which would be a good, pre-CGI, setting for the mines of Moria from Lord of the Rings – think a dark subterranean space with hundreds of columns disappearing in the distance in every direction you care to look. Leaving the cisterns I get called over by a carpet seller – “hey my friend, where are you from, some and have a chai, would you like to learn about carpets”. After a very short time chatting about what I was going to do the next day, he quickly realised there was zero chance of me buying a large heavy carpet, no matter how exquisite the craftsmanship. So our conversation wandered, to general business – “terrible terrible, these terrorists have scared away all the tourists”, and books “I am 25 but I have never read, but I want to start, how do I do it, what books should I read?” I recommend Harry Potter as something easy and addictive. More tea is procured and we chat for a while, but then bid him goodbye as I still have a busy schedule.
I fit in the Grand Bazaar (A huge rabbit warren of a covered market begun in 1455, one of the largest and oldest in the world with 61 covered streets, and 4000(!) shops), full of bored looking merchants smoking, drinking tea, and staring at their phones (The grand bazaar is an awesome spectacle, but its mainly for tourists, and there are precious few of them around due to the recent terrorist attacks). Finally I end up at the Süleymaniye Mosque. This will be my start point tomorrow, and I want to give it a proper going over. The mosque, completed in 1557, is the second largest in Istanbul (after the Blue Mosque) but is widely considered to be one of the best examples of Ottoman architecture, together with its relatively intact mosque complex buildings (hamam, schools, caravanserai, soup kitchens for the poor, etc). It does not disappoint – a huge soaring dome (although not as big as the Hagia Sophia – 1000 years its senior), clean lines, intricate arabic calligraphy in medallions and arrayed around the dome, impossibly intricate patterned tile work. I feel the deficiency of my vocabulary and ability to describe its architectural beauty keenly. Also I havent bought a guide book for Istanbul, so I am restricted at simply marvelling at it without a great depth of understanding or knowledge. Suffice to say, if you are in Istanbul, make sure not to miss it. You will not be disappointed.
The sun is setting as I leave, I get to see a wonderful sunset over the Golden Horn from the vantage of the mosque gardens, before slinking off back to Taksim. I go for a farewell drink with my landlady, we return and I spend several hours packing, ready for tomorrow. I had “done” istanbul as well as I could in a short time. The one thing I hadnt done yet was to meet many turks, other than my landlady and the carpet seller, but this was soon to change……..