Europe by Bike (4/8): Journey to one of the centers of the world

Go through the glorious gate and enter Turkey

The East appeared, as our procession continued on its way. Entering the country, we discover a region organized in a realistic way. Very wide national roads cross the countryside, connecting small towns and converging on Istanbul. Nature is characterized by temperature and the sun regularly burns crops. As we passed through the first inhabited village, the music of the muezzins captivated us. The words are hard to understand but the tunes are mesmerizing. Since our arrival, tea and tobacco have been systematically offered to us. Served with its mark, coffee is consumed. For the rest, we exchange the few euros in our pockets for the local currency, the Turkish lira.

Our food caters to the given products and oriental cuisine. During the day, the heat prevents us from eating properly and we content ourselves with downing water bottles – sometimes up to 8 liters of water. Public sources become our primary concern. Maxim’s joke is Ayran, a fermented yogurt-based milk very popular in the Middle East or Central Asia. He adopted certain customs and began to maintain a mustache to make the Turks proud. There are many traveling fruit and vegetable sellers on the side of the road chasing cars. Sometimes we stop and leave with bags full. Evenings are often an opportunity to catch and enjoy the delicacies of Ottoman cuisine: lentil soup, menemen (omelet of peppers, onions, tomatoes and Turkish sausage) or guvek (meat or fish stew).

Türkiye is an originality in many ways. The country is divided by several currents of thought, and the small western section we cross is the best known to our world. Although the state’s secularism has been a constitutional principle since 1937, traditionalist currents are resurgent among the population, especially in rural areas, especially in the east of the country. Here, everything is an excuse to display portraits of the father of the modern nation, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, current president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, or simply fly the red and white flag. They sit enthroned on the streets, interfere with the privacy of rooms and sometimes even go to the toilet. Welcome to democracy! As history has evolved, so have social norms: today, the press is tightly controlled, homosexuality is frowned upon, and overall, women are rather marginalized in public spaces. However, Maxim continues to question the inhabitants about their way of life, about their perception of their society. The interviewees are happy to answer and take us on a river of discussion. Differences of opinion, democracy is still breathing!

At the end of the Stations of the Cross, Istanbul

Little by little, we get used to the hellish traffic and assume the behavior of the locals. We arrive at a straight axis made up of a motorway lane, a main road and a side of the road, which we resign ourselves to sharing with bus drivers, scooters, rubbish cart pushers and other machines tinkered with by expert mechanics. “D” system.

Initially, Maxim did not plan to go to Istanbul. The idea came one morning, on the sole pretext that the objective seemed accessible. The first hints were pointed out and with Simon, they began to consider it from their first discussion in Greece.

50 kilometers separate us from the city and the density of suburbs is already becoming suffocating. Istanbul is getting closer, we continue. Then one day, past the Dardanelles, we sleep on a beach overlooking the Sea of ​​Marmara. The next day, we passed the city gates.

From shore to shore

What a slap! Istanbul is above a geographical location. The first instinct when passing the gates of the old city is to steer our caravans towards the Bosphorus: “Simon, we did it! We made it!” Again tears of joy flow from the faces of the two drivers.

Istanbul is the only city that can boast of being on two continents and creating a meeting point between East and West. The city is marked by an interesting history: it was the Byzantium of the Greeks, the Constantinople of the Romans, the fleeting hope of the Latin Empire formed by the Crusaders, then the capital of the sultans of the Ottoman Empire to become a cosmopolitan megalopolis. That we will find out. It is easy to understand why the ancestors of the Turks devoted so much effort and time to possessing this wonder.

We find a hostel in the historic center of the city where we can leave our luggage, then decide to take advantage of the last light of the day on the roof of the building. The place is perfect for immersing yourself in archaeological and religious sites, grand palaces, picturesque streets and districts. Finally, the contrast with the countryside is striking: it seems more liberal and the weight of religion is less ubiquitous. The next day, we left Simon hoping to see each other again. Istanbul is the final destination of his visit, after which he will return to Paris.

We use a ferry to reach the other side of the city. When the boat is quiet, Maxim struggles to hide his excitement: “For the price of a metro ticket, I’m going to set foot in Asia for the first time in my life! ” Enthusiasm quickly wanes. From one bank to the other, the atmosphere and noise are more or less the same.

Istanbul is a bubble

Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar is the largest covered bazaar in the East: a real Ali Baba’s cave! Thousands of shops are distributed in a maze of shopping malls, streets and passages. Businessmen can easily find words in English, but also in French, Spanish, Arabic, Russian to persuade future buyers. We enjoy participating in tried and true numbers and vendor parades. There are carpets, spices, jewellery, lamps, clothes, musical instruments etc. We leave with some portion of tea in anticipation of our next bivouacs – no regrets – Maxim is already having trouble closing the caravan’s saddlebags.

In the maze of streets, Maxime takes pleasure in introducing me to businesses, which only old-timers in France remember: traveling salesmen, shiners, meanders, sellers of water, fruit, food, pastries or sweets, auctioneers, kiosks, suppliers of tourist guides.

As we walk, the mosque emerges from the ground. The buildings are covered with decorations of rare delicacy. Inside, only the smell of visitors’ feet disturbs the prayers of the faithful. Wearing shoes in mosques is strictly prohibited. The noise of the street suddenly breaks their peace. Outside, a constant traffic of cars, buses, trams, residents, workers and visitors envelops the city from dawn to dusk.

Set sail for the Black Sea and the Balkans

After a short week, we can no longer ignore the call of the road. The rest is scheduled around last tea: we head back to Europe and head for the Balkans, Central and Northern Europe.

The Iranian option involves a lot of uncertainty (especially for obtaining a visa, issued by the embassy in Ankara). Months later, we would learn that a wave of instability was hitting Iran—a breeze of freedom, blown by women whose hair was blowing in the wind outside Tehran’s bazaars.

As the shower calms the excitement of Istanbul, Maxim again presses the horn of the laden caravan and sounds our departure. Moved by this first step on the continent of Asia, we take the road to Europe – the Balkans in the viewfinder – burning soul.

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