Tag Archives: Turkey

Fat cat: 365-19

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I should point out that my cat Tinker is not actually fat, to my constant amazement given how obsessed he is with food!

I finally got round to doing something with the last of the Christmas turkey yesterday, and there was a bit too much to fit into the slow cooker. So I decided to treat both my cats to a plateful of lovely turkey & gravy. Needless to say, if you’ve ever met them, Molly turned her nose up at it and Tinker spent all morning chomping away. Just as well he likes exercise too!

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Final Destination

End of the line at Istanbul’s Sirkeci station – at last!

Well, what can I say about Istanbul? Busy? Yes. Vibrant? Definitely. Beautiful? Without a doubt. It’s pretty much lived up to expectations and then some – stunning mosques; East meets West; the noisy and bustling pace of life – and that’s just during the daytime.

The Blue Mosque, Sultanahmet

We were lucky that when we arrived the sun had come out, and by the time we made it out into Sultanahmet the day was positively balmy. Well, it was compared to the crisp February Bulgarian air the previous evening! The Blue Mosque is the first thing we saw as we get off at the tram stop, with all the imposing beauty you’d expect from an ancient place of worship.

The Blue Mosque

The fountains that play between it and the neighbouring Aya Sofia make me think English stately home though, and the formal park gardens as you face the Aya Sofia complete the confusing sense that you’re at once at home and somewhere very different and exciting at the same time. It’s Friday, and prayer time, and calls ringing out from every minaret (of which there are many, wherever you look in Istanbul) add to the magic of the city.

The Aya Sofia

But then we pay a visit to the Grand Bazaar, one of the biggest covered markets in the world, and the wonderful smelling Spice Bazaar – and quickly learn to say “no thankyou” and “maybe later” in Turkish. It’s not a scary experience though, and walking through a Turkish marketplace is nothing like avoiding pushy UK Del Trotters. It’s almost like bidding on ebay, but with interaction with actual human beings, and ones that take actual joy and pride in the small talk that surrounds a good sales pitch. The shopkeepers here are complete masters of the art and we quickly learn that we can reply to a shout of “Where you from? English?” without obligation to stop or buy, and can stop and look without obligation to buy – as long as we buy into the dance, the business flirtation, and aren’t afraid to say “no not today” with a laugh and a smile, it’s all part of the fun of Istanbul.

The Grand Bazaar

This spirit extends to everywhere we go, and street cafe waiters stand on the street and offer us tea and kebabs. In England we’d not touch places who resorted to such pushiness, but in Istanbul it’s not pushy, it’s just the way they advertise. When we decide to accept a seat and a menu, the waiters keep popping back to chat to us, laugh with us, try and guess where in England our accents are from, teach us some Turkish, and treat us like we’re long lost friends. At the end of the day of course it makes good business sense to treat  your customers like this, but it’s also obvious these waiter-maitre’Ds quite enjoy chatting and gossiping with their guests. It beats standing in a hot kitchen bitching about the menu if nothing else!

Berna, Dave, Derya and me overlooking the Bosphorous on the Terrace of a swanky 5th floor bar

The best bits of Istanbul for me were both down to my wonderful new friend Berna and her fiance Derya, who live in their native Istanbul. Berna offered to take us out and show us the famous Istanbul nightlife, Turkish style. Our first port of call was a swanky rooftop bar overlooking the Bosphorous, with breathtaking views of a spectacularly lit up city (captured, albeit through plexi-glass, above). Then onto heaving backstreet bars full of atmosphere, crammed with street tables – even electricity failure (a particularly smelly generator blow-out) didn’t damped the fun – 5 minutes later and a back-up generator had the lights and music back on again, unlike in England where if there’s a power cut we’re all unceremoniously asked to leave and go home early.

Me & Berna

Not content with wowing us with the vibrancy of the Turkish bar and clubbing culture, Berna and Derya then took us for midnight munchies, again traditional Turkish style, and persuaded us to try deep fried mussels (very nice), deep fried whitebait (um, fishy), seasoned pig intestine (less seasony, more intestiney to my freshly non-vegetarian palate, but Dave liked it so all was not lost), and raki. Raki is of course the Turkish tipple, similar to Ouzo, and Derya explains to us how it should be drunk correctly, which involves filling your glass half with raki, topping up with water, and savouring it. In Turkey, your raki doesn’t accompany your meal, your meal accompanies your raki. We’d never have found any of these little streets or bars or restaurants without our expert hosts, but it’s safe to say that our Istanbul experience was the best night out of the trip – it’s certainly obvious why the vibe of Taksim during the day, and even more so at night, makes it the bit of Istanbul to visit if you want to feel the city.

Midnight munchies & raki

So on to my final highlight, a tourist trip along the Bosphorus river, again recommended by Berna. The Bosphorus splits the European side of Istanbul into two (Sultanahmet on the West and Taksim on the East), and also flows out into the Mediterranean to mark the easternmost end of Europe in Turkey, and the start of Asia. Boat tours start at the noisy hubbub of the New Mosque and Spice Market in Eminonu, where the boat tour operators blare catchy Turkish pop music at you while chanting “Bosfor, Bosfor” into their microphones (doing a good impression of Shaggy practicing his MCing), while colourful but violently bobbing kitchen-boats, moored at the side of the river, dish out kebabs, donuts and glasses of Turkish tea to diners (who I’m relieved to say stay on dry land to eat, just watching the boats lurch was enough to make me feel ill).

Kitchen Party Disco!

But as the boat sets off towards Asia, leaving Sultanahmet behind, you quickly feel the calm wash over you. The Bosphorus is a busy yet tranquil river, wide and blue, and as you head for the Asian bank and watch the silhouetted skyline of Sultanahmet drift away, softened by the haze, and see the mix of modern skyscrapers and apartments and ancient minarets and palaces, you realise you’re between continents – between East and West.

East on the left; West on the right; Bosphor in the middle

And so that brings me to the end of our trip. 2 weeks by train from London to Istanbul, not quite on the old route of the Orient Express, but near enough to be able to tell my proverbial grandkids about. It’s been an experience, and as a pretty novice traveller, one which I never imagined I’d ever have. I must admit that thinking about all the things I’d managed to do and see in such a short amount of time, and that I’d actually made it in one piece (well just about, we won’t mention the food poisoning on my last night), I found myself a little bit emotional at the airport (Sabiha Gokcen, on the Asian side of Istanbul) while I sipped my Turkish tea – and waited for my flight home.

Days since leaving the UK: 12, 13 and 14

Kilometers travelled by train: 3310 + 485 = 3795. Plus another 31km by coach, which makes a grand total of… drum roll please… 3826km,or 2377 miles! (ish).

Weather: a hazy and balmy 10 degrees C

Continents crossed: 1

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The Bosfor Express

Inside the Bosfor Express

The once daily, overnight Bosfor Express is our only way out of Bulgaria into Turkey by train. The alternative, by bus, Elena tells us, may well be quicker, but the quality of roads in Bulgaria, the age of the buses often used, and the tendency for buses to be cancelled without warning, means that we need to get the train to be sure of getting there before I have to fly home!

Hostel Mostel’s Todd

As there’s only one train a day, we check the time and price straight away, and decide it’d probably be a good idea to buy our tickets as soon as possible so we don’t miss our connection. Todd at the hostel shows us on the map where the international ticket office is in Veliko, but when we get there we are told by the Tourist Information next door, that it’s closed till the end of the week and we have 2 options – first is to take a bus to the next town, Gorna Oryahovitsa, which takes 40 minutes, find the international ticket office at the railway station there, buy our tickets, and come back on the bus. Or, we can get a Bulgarian ticket to the border, get off the train (although she’s not sure how long it stops there), and go to the ticket office there to get the rest of our ticket into Turkey. Not an option that fills us with confidence, especially as it’s a sleeper and we know the border crossing happens around 1am, so we opt for a trip out to Gorna – at least we get to see a bit more of Bulgaria.

On the minibus

We set out to find the right bus, manage to flag it down and we ask for Gorna Oryahovitsa. We’re waved brusquely onto the bus, which is seems to be a minicoach from about 1981, and a conductor sells us a ticket. The journey to Gorna is uneventful, but the day is sunny and we get to see the Balkans surrounding Veliko fade back into the flatter area around Gorna, as well as see the rustic old buildings of Veliko disappear to be replaced by the more small-town urbanness of Gorna.

Bus stop back to Veliko

We’re not sure where to get off the bus though so as it looks like we’re on our way out of Gorna again we try and get off – but suddenly realise there’s no bell to ring and neither the conductor nor driver speak English! Fortunately standing up and moving towards the door seemed to work as I shoved Dave out of his seat, and we made the short walk back into town, and managed somehow, despite the ticket lady speaking no English either, to get approximately the right tickets for our last train journey, taking us towards the other end of Europe.

That’s a sink there. Yup really, bottom left. The thing that looks like a table.

When we get on the train, it turns out our sleeper carriage was booked as a couchette cabin (for 6 people) when we had requested a private 2-person berth so we could get some sleep. To be honest I think this was probably down to me nodding and shaking my head too eagerly in the wrong places at the ticket lady, but for €15 each we were allowed to upgrade, and we were let into a dark wood-veneered (but I suspect still not hugely expensive) and brass-painted cabin, with a fold-down sink, carpeted ladder to the top bunk, and small mirrored cupboard! I feel very Agatha Christie, and we settle down and wait for our 1am customs call at the Turkish border…

To Turkey!

…which keeps us on tenterhooks all night. We don’t know exactly when we’ll be reaching the border, all we’ve been told is maybe 1 or 2am. We think we’ll need to get off the train to get our Turkish entry visa but we don’t know the rest of the procedure, or when or where to go so we decide not to sleep until we’re in Turkey so we know we don’t miss anything. Midnight comes and goes with the train standing in a Bulgarian station (no station signs remember!) for a whole hour – all we know is it’s not the border. We think.

1 am and 2 am also come and go, but finally at just before 2.30, Bulgarian passport control get on the train, and we’re told that in 35 minutes we’ll be in Edirne, the Turkish border town, where we’ll need to get off and get our visa, show our passports, and have our bags prodded by Turkish customs. It’s a big relief to see the friendly train guard come and tell us to get off the train, and to get constant knocks on our door from Turkish border guards coming to check our things, because now we know we’ve not missed anything, there won’t be any more things to think about, and we’re safely in Turkey. Even if it is 3.30am and completely dark outside when we set off from Edirne to our final destination – Istanbul.

Days since leaving the UK:  11

Kilometres travelled so far by main train journeys:  2951 + 359 = 3310

Countries travelled through so far: 9

Cities visited: 8

Ratio of stray animals:  Cats > Dogs

Weather:  It’s dark outside, I’ll let you know.

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Filed under Europe, Railways, Travel, Turkey

Hello World

This is a rather long-overdue post. Which I blame partly on Christmas and mince pie eating, partly on me doing a fair bit of other writing work in December (I’m putting all my written work on my portfolio now and keeping this blog for posts about travel and other generally cool experiences), and partly on spending time trying to co-ordinate madcap adventures – which I can proudly announce today I have just about finalised!

Reykjavik city centre will have to wait…

Some of you may know that spending 6 months volunteering in Iceland was my original plan for February, but unfortunately there’s been a problem with funding and the place I was promised has fallen through. I’m still hoping to go in May for a 4-6 week stint volunteering but that’s yet to confirm still.

But May’s a long way off right? Yup. Am I going to sit in my flat waiting for May? Nope….

I’m a big fan of slow travel, a concept embodied nicely by the Slow Travel Berlin Website. Take the time to soak in your surroundings, experience the culture and quirks of where you are, find out about what makes it tick, and enjoy yourself. So in this spirit I and my lomography-mad friend Dave are embarking on a 2-week train journey from St Pancras to Istanbul, via Brussels, Vienna, Budapest, Transylvania, Bucharest, and Veliko Tarnovo. Probably. From Budapest onwards we’re going to play exact timings by ear and explore the mystery and uniqueness of Eastern Europe. We plan to keep a photo blog on the trip in addition to my own entries here, although as Dave uses film a lot this may not be practical! I shall post details when I have them of course.

St Pancras to Istanbul. Click through for the original on seat61.com

But 2 weeks won’t keep me occupied for long, so in addition I have applied to live and work with the Maasai people of Kenya for 6 weeks. I will be working teaching kids at primary level and doing some blogging for them to help promote the Maasai culture (although this all could change of course). I’ve been anxious about making plans so different to my original ones, and have been agonising about where I’m going, why I’m going, how long to go for (and whether to keep my flat on or put everything in storage) and who will look after my cats (I’ve found them a fantastic holiday home with my other half Jamie’s best friend and his wife – phew! Their last cat lived on roast chicken though, let’s hope they don’t lose their taste for cheapo biscuits when I get back. At least I know I can always win Tinker over with a bit of broccoli and some cat crack (aka Whiskas Temptations in Salmon flavour…)).

Apparently there are elephants in Kenya

Most of all if I’m honest I’ve no idea what Kenya will be like – while a lot of people I’ve come across have either been to or done voluntary work in Africa, or at least have a burning desire to visit and meet the locals, I’m a bit Africa-naive. It’s always been the northern and baltic countries I’ve been drawn to – Russia, Scandinavia, Eastern Europe, Japan. Even central America has had more of a draw to me than Africa has, which is odd because it’s undoubtedly a stunningly beautiful and diverse continent. Perhaps it’s because I had family in Kenya when I was a kid, so even though I never went to visit nor was in much contact with them, it somehow seems not as mysterious, and consequently not as interesting . Or perhaps I’m wary of the legacy that white meddlers from just a few generations ago have left and I’m just not sure what my place would be. Yet.

MEAC volunteer with some of the Maasai

This has been part of the reason I have chosen to volunteer with an organisation run by the Maasai, for the Maasai, called Maasai Education and Advocacy for Change (MEAC) – rather than a Western organisation working with local Africans. The Maasai in particular are an intelligent and proud people with a pastoral heritage who have been marginalised by even their own Kenyan and Tanzanian governments, and denied use of their ancestral lands which have been designated game reserves for tourism. I like an underdog and I think that’s another reason why this particular organisation appealed.

Satellite image of Kimuka in the Ngong region. Click through for the original interactive GoogleMap

So I’m now booked and paid up to go as of today, and I’m starting to feel more confident and excited about my adventures. I think it’ll be a pretty fast learning curve over the next few weeks until I go (I’ve managed to order 11 books and novels on Eastern Europe and Africa which will at least keep me occupied for a while), but I think it’ll be worth it. If anyone has any questions, tips or advice then please feel free to ask and either way it’ll help!

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