2005 -- Bike Touring and Exploring Turkey

July 9 -- Athens to Istanbul -- Greek and Turkish History 

Greece and Turkey have a long history of conflict.  Way back in the Trojan War, Hercules fought victoriously with the Greeks against King Priam and the people of Troy, located on the west coast of Turkey. Throughout the 400 years of the Ottoman Empire the Turks ruled over Greece and also all of the mideast and Egypt.

During the last few hundred years the Greeks and Turks have fought various wars, including a major series of battles just 50 years ago, and today they continue to argue over control of the island of Cyprus.  Friends told us of  meeting a NATO commander who said his main job is to keep the Greeks and Turks from starting another war.  The Turks mostly play by the rulebook, according to him, but the Greeks are always harrassing the Turks, flying too close with their jets during manouvers, and other confrontational behaviour.

We certainly heard numerous derogatory comments about Turkey while in Greece.  One well-dressed 60-ish business man predicted nothing but problems for us in Turkey.  Thinking he was prejudiced against Muslims, we told him we had a wonderful time in Egypt.  He retorted, "That is different.  The Egyptians are civilized.  The Turks are not even civilized people!"  Many Greeks refuse to call Istanbul by its name.  Instead they refer to it by the old Greek name, Constantinople, or just call it "the city."  Even the sign on the front of our bus does not say Istanbul, but rather Athens-Turkey.

An enormous line of cars, 4 km long and two lanes wide, announces the arrival of our bus at the Greek-Turkey border.  The occupants of each vehicle stand beside their cars, stretching their legs, chatting and making picnic lunches from coolers inside opened trunks.  Our bus driver somehow drives through and around the throng, and in less than an hour we are in front of the line.  Another hour and we are through customs and rolling down the Turkish highway.

The countryside is remarkably clean and litter free.  We ride though field after field of sunflowers.  All of the towns are outlined by rings of newly built apartment buildings, six stories high, square shaped with four family units per floor.  Each building is covered with balconies and satellite dishes, and painted bright and cheerful colors: gold with burgundy trim; sky blue with mint green trim; soft pastel yellow with aqua.  Others are splatter painted with contrasting colors, which looks very cool, or decorated with elaborate geometric patterns of tile mosaics which sparkle in the sun.

The Istanbul bus station is 10 km from downtown.  Since it is late and we are exhausted, we wheel our bikes across the street into the the metro, buy two tickets for ourselves and two for the bikes, and head into the city.  A man standing next to us, who only speaks Turkish, is able to decipher our destination and motions he is going there and will help us.  At the transfer station we take our bikes up the escalator and follow our guide, who takes us through a row of shops to a long set of stairs.  Using our brakes we are able to control our bikes and walk them down the steps.  We go through more rows of shops under the ground and arrive at a long set of stairs going up.  Our guide helps Tass carry her bike up the stairs while I struggle to keep up, all the while negotiating through a throng of people who all seem to be going the other direction.  After another row of shops, and up and down another set of stairs we board an electric trolley the final distance into the city, where we begin searching for a hotel.

July 10-12 Istanbul -- Byzantine History -- Aya Sophia -- Blue Mosque

In 324 AD the Roman Emporer Constantine, after destorying much of the city of Byzantine in a victorious war with a rival, rebuilt and renamed the city Constantinople, and declared it the "New Rome."  After repeated sackings of the original Rome by barbarians, and the decline and fall of the western Roman empire into the dark ages, the eastern empire, Byzantium, with Constantinople as its capitol, lasted until the Ottoman Turkish conquest in 1453 AD, an amazing 1123 years.  The city was renamed Istanbul, and for the next 400 years it would remain a capitol, this time of the Ottoman Empire, which included all of the mid-east, north Africa, and westward across Europe as far as Vienna.

Istanbul, or at least the section where we are staying, is immaculately clean, with well-manicured parks filled with flower gardens and fountains.  When we tell shop owners we thought Turkey would be similar to Egypt they shake their heads and tell us "Turkey is not at all like Egypt." Although most Turks are Muslim, the government is very secular and takes a strong stand against blending religion into politics.  For example, it is against the law for any woman working in a government office to wear a head scarf.  Out on the street about half of the women do wear scarves, but more loosely wrapped than in Egypt, and few women wear the black robes and black veils.

Our first destination is Aya Sophia, the enormous church built by Emporer Justinian in 537 AD, during the hight of the Byzantine Empire.  It was the largest building in the world for nearly a thousand years.  After the Ottoman conquestl it was turned into a mosque.  In 1935 Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, turned the building into a museum.  We find the building large and impressive, with some beautiful Byzantine Christian mosaics, but the center of the main dome has been under restoration for the last ten years and is filled with scaffolding.  The building seems confusing--not a church, not a mosque, part museum, part construction site, full-time tourist site.

Much more impressive to us is the nearby Blue Mosque, built during the height of the Ottoman Empire in 1616 AD.  The Blue Mosque is equally striking from the outside with its enormous domes and six minarets, but much more elegant and beautiful on the inside.  It is also very much in use, with prayers held five times each day, yet open to the puclic the rest of the time.

We spend a day at the Grand Bazaar, a maze of alleys with over 4,000 shops selling everything imaginable.  Some parts of the building date from the 15th century.  But our favorite is the 'newer' Spice Market, dating only from the early 1600s, an aromatic wonderland of fresh, dried, and powdered herbs and spices, along with every other type of food--sweets, fruits, vegetables, fresh fish and meat, along with plants, animals, you can even buy leeches for theraputic bleeding. 

Turkish money takes a little getting used to.  One dollar buys 1,300,000 Turkish Lira.  In January 2005 the government issued "new" Liras--one dollar equals 1 Lira and 30 cents.  So some of the money still has all the zeros--in millions--and some money does not.  Most shopkeepers still quote prices in the millions, and the common joke is "everyone in Turkey is poor, but all die as millionaires."

Cats continue to hold special status.  Every sidewalk cafe and restaurant has resident cats that the patrons constanly feed under the table.  In the parks we see bowls of food and water set out for street cats, who are all extremely well-fed and healthy.

July 13-15 -- Van Cats -- Carpets -- Crazy Traffic

We meet some carpet sellers from Van Lake in eastern Turkey who have three Van cats, all white fur with one blue and one green eye.  We had hoped to visit Van Lake to see the cats, but won't have time, so we are thrilled to see the cats here.  Their carpet shop is close to our hotel so we visit them daily.  One evening we also ask to see carpets.  The shop owner says "You look too tired.  Come back tomorrow."  The next day, between errands, we stop again.  "It is too hot now" he tells us.  "Come back after 6 pm, it is a better time.  We can drink tea and relax."

Other shop owners are not so relaxed.  Everywhere we go we get constant sales pitches.  Yet even when we decline the vendors smile and say "Maybe tomorrow."  We are amazed at how aware the salesman are of our every action.  Look at something out of the corner of your eye and they will grab it and start a sales pitch.  Make a quiet comment about liking something and they hear you three stores away. Our second trip to the grand bazaar we hear "Hello! South Dakota!"  We turn and see a carpet salesman I had briefly chatted with two days ago.  No doubt he also remembers my occupation, how long I have been in Turkey, which carpets I looked at, the prices I was quoted--along with similar statistics on everyone else he has met in the last month. Amazing how our corner of Istanbul feels like a small town.  All the shopkeepers near our hotel greet us with enthusiasm, and constantly invites us in for tea.

Can't seem to get out of Istanbul.  I spend a morning looking for a bike shop to repair another broken spoke.  Also stop repeatedly by the offices of the Istanbul Mufti, the religious head of the area mosques, to see if I can get permission to make photos inside the Blue Mosque during prayers.  On the second visit I am able to meet the Sefi, the second in command.  Through an interpreter (a well dressed business man who I find out on the street) I am told "Forget about it. It is forebidden and you will never get permission."

Luckily it has been easy photographing people on the street.  Many Turkish vacationers take photos of themselves around the sights of Istanbul.  We jump in and take photos of them at the same time.  Everyone always laughs and says "Thank you!"  They have also taken pictures of us.

Sending emails has been challenging as the hotel computor I use is formatted in Turkish.  Most of the keyboard is the same, except for the i, period, and coma.  Type an i, you see an i on the screen, but email it and it turns into a Y. I have to use a second i key, where the italics normally is located.  The period is where the / normally is.  To edit anything I have to email it to myself, clean it up, and send it out a second time.

To make up for our delay in Istanbul we decide to take a night bus to our next destination, Cappadocia in central Turkey. But we never stop to think that means we will be leaving on Friday evening, at rush hour.  The metro is so crowded the guard won't let us board with our bikes until the rush subsides, too late to catch our bus.  We have no choice but to bike 10 kilometers across downtown Istanbul.  At first the traffic is only moderately crazy.  With each kilometer the road becomes more jam packed.  We ride inches from the curb with huge buses only inches from our elbows.  As the road gets more conjested the traffic slows to a crawl, and now we are faster, passing vehicles on the left and right.  We ride wherever there is room for the bicycles, often out in the middle of three lanes of traffic, through openings just wide enough for our handlebars.  The cars and buses are all constantly trying to change lanes, so it is very exciting.  Many people honk and wave with enthusiasm as we pass.  The sun sets as we near the bus station.  Half of the cars have their lights on.  We arrive totally jazzed with adrenalin, like we just did a big wall rock climb or some epic powder skiing down avalanche chutes.  It is a perfect way to end our stay in Istanbul, definitely one of our most favorite cities in the world.

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