Helen Moat finally arrives in Istanbul and finds the locals non-plussed. Surely she could have flown?
“You crrrazy, you. Crrazy wo-man.”
The hairdresser held the comb suspended in the air. Mamma manager who’d been swishing around the room in her long skirt, barking out orders from under her headscarf, stopped now to stare at me while her teenage assistants in their knee-slashed skinny jeans giggled into their hands.
“You come all way from Eng-e-land?”
“On a bee-ce-clette?”
“Yes.” I reeled off the countries: "Netherlands, Germany, France, Switzerland, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria and Turkey.”
The hairdresser shook her head, uncomprehending.
“When you start?”
“On the first of May.”
“How long you on bike?”
“Almost four months.”
“Four days in car!”
“Plane, four hours,” one of the assistants laughed.
Perhaps they were right.
Leaving the flat plains of the Danube, the land that first rippled gently out from Constanta and the Black Sea became persistent waves that increasingly rose and dipped all the way to the Turkish border. Now in Silivri, rock and yellowed grassland gave way to chalky high-rise buildings that shimmered in the heat haze, caught in the folds of the hills, or perched on the skyline – an urban jungle that extended all the way to Istanbul.
The heat and the hills; the exhaust fumes and maze of streets had been challenging enough, but from Silivri it was the Turkish roads, or more specifically the Turkish drivers that were stretching us to our limits.
A Romanian cyclist had ran across the dual carriageway of the D100 to warn us.
“Take a bus,” he advised.
But when I suggested it to my husband, he was horrified. “You can’t cycle all the way into Turkey then take a bus.”
Even the Turks warned us against the Istanbul roads.
Nurhan, our couch-surfing host’s twin brother in Lüleburgaz admitted the roads were a free-for-all after Tüyap.
Another Turk had shaken his head and said, “You’re very brave. The Istanbul drivers are crazy.”
Everyone offered advice:
“You’ll need eyes everywhere.”
“Expect the unexpected.”
Surely it couldn’t be that bad?
But it was. Jamie and I decided to take the ‘quieter’ service road that ran alongside the D100 – but it was just another dual carriageway, extending the four lane through-road to eight lanes, albeit separated by barriers. If anything the service road was worse with the countless slip roads that fed onto it – and it seemed that Jamie and I were invisible – or maybe it was national Kill a Cyclist Day in Turkey.
I watched in horror as a car drove straight out of the slip road and into Jamie’s path without giving way. Jamie swerved, all too aware of the traffic on his left. Minutes later a second car drove out of another slip road straight into his path. Jamie slammed on the brakes, wobbling precariously, just managing to stay on the bike.
After that we dragged our bikes onto the pavement and continued off-road.
But we survived, making it over the hills, through the heat and the traffic to the outskirts of the city centre. On the 14th of August, we sat it out in Zeytinburnu, like the container ships crowding the Sea of Marmara, waiting for our time to enter the city.
Jamie and I woke up on the 15th with that ‘Christmas Morning’ nervous excitement in the pit of our stomachs: Our journey was almost done. Our reception party had flown into Istanbul. This would be our last day of cycling.
We pedalled through parks and along the Sea of Marmara, drawing ever closer to Sultanahmet. In the distance we could see the minarets and dome of the Blue Mosque and the hills of Asia beyond. Had we really cycled all the way here to the edge of Europe? We drew yet closer, Topkapi Palace on our left, just above our heads.
One more hill and a last free-wheel down to the ferry quays at Eminönü. We rounded the last corner. Would they be waiting for us? My long-suffering husband, my son Patrick; my sister and her husband? Anxiously, I scanned the tourists milling in front of the boats. Tom and I had flown here just three years earlier. We’d eaten fish sandwiches by the Galata Bridge, listening to the call to prayer echoing around the hills mingled with the cries of the boat touts, “Bospor, Bospor, Bospor.” Back then, I couldn’t visualise cycling to this point from the docks of Hull in chilly England – even though the seeds of my trip had already been planted.
And there they were, peering over the crowds to see us cycling towards them before breaking into big smiles. We’d done it.
Our cycle was not quite finished. Asia lay just across the water – tantalisingly close. We weren’t going to cycle all the way across Europe without dipping our wheels in the East. We pushed the bikes onto the ferry and crossed the Bosphorus. A few more rotations of the pedals to a waterside café in Üsküdar – and we celebrated in true Turkish style – with miniature glasses of… chai.
The long haul was over. With Jamie I’d crossed Europe and into Asia.
Editor's note: Congratulations, Helen, from all of us at the Towers. You're the kind of crazy we like here at Wanderlust. We dips our lid to you and Jamie for completing your epic and inspirational journey.
Main image: The Blue Mosque beckons (Shutterstock)