The first bushcamp makes the first victims amongst our kit. The wind blows one of the pads we were using as drybag support, then one of our cooking mugs cracks open. But no sweat, dude, because we are busy with some trail riding for breakfast: the 5 km of slops and rocky patches back to the tarred road that should give Ana a better idea of what is to come in the Pamir. Well, as she’s already done this trail the night before, she cranks it up with more confidence and enough gas to see herself thru with a smile. It’s more fun than on the tarmac, she says, and that confession makes me happy. We feed our metal horses and get back in the saddle. We need to step up our game and try to make up for the time lost with waiting for parts and gear to arrive – like over two weeks of delay by now. And our day is long – one month ago, when we were discussing the pace for this trip, we were both convinced we would not be able to do over 300K in one day, given Ana’s experience. But here we are, doing it, and we roll across the Turkish border with still some energy to spare. The first pleasant surprise in Turkey – which has become like an old friend, really – is that at the gas station where we stop to refuel tea is free. :)
Luckily this time we are riding behing the rain – we barely get a few drops on us, and with this Rukka goretex gear we don’t care. But the woods where we decide to pitch camp – at about 100 km off Istanbul – is soaking wet. Our road tires aren’t up for this job, so Ana gets a taste of mud. In such a charming place though, it is hard for anyone – even with mud on their clothes and all spent out – to stay mad.
After a rainy night we roll into Istanbul – a city of 17 million souls, and all seem to be already driving some sort of vehicle at this hour. The traffic is as bad as they say: suffocating, mind boggling. We advance centimeter by centimeter, wheel to wheel. The roads are never flat, always steep and the turns always sharp. Ana sweats buckets, her tip-toes barely scarping the asphalt, her hands gripping the clutch and brake, her nerves almost exploding. Somehow she manages to keep it together and we arrive in the neighbourhood where the embassy of Uzbekistan is located. The visa processing is fast: within two hours I have it in my pocket.
While I am dealing with paperwork Ana is taking in some local scene. Since crossing the border it is obvious these people are anything but lazy: we see plenty of old men or teenagers carrying or pushing something that looks heavy. Across the street there’s this small shop where a tailor sporting the beard of a Santa Claus is even skipping lunch to work. The veg vendor keeps sorting the produce, organising his stand, decorating with fresh leaves. It smells of strawberries and flowers, the street is zooming and Istanbul pushes some of its awesome energy back into our drained systems. Better grab a bit to top this excellent morning up.
After lunch we navigate our way to Kurtulus, where our couchsurfing host – Ozgur- lives. It’s a maze of 45 degrees inclines and narrow alleys and the prize of making it up to our destination alive is a proper Istanbul snack: stuffed mussels.
But Ozgur has bigger plans. As if he knew we are such devoted foodies, for the next days he takes the concept of Turkish gourmet to a whole new level. You know, couchsurfing is risky. It can be hit and miss. We have done the backpackers’s Istanbul, the old grandma’s Istanbul, the big hotels Istanbul. This time we wanted to stay local, and within our age group, so we said, what the heck. And honestly, we did not find a host, we’ve found a friend. Ozgur – feel free to be jealous – gives us his bed, takes us to some of the most divine restaurants and always picks up the bill. We dine on meze and raki at one of his grand-dad’s fav joints, open for business since the 30s. We eat the lightest, crunchiest deep fried sardines and anchovies at the legendary Adem Baba in Arnavutköy, frocking on this side of Istanbul since 1998. How can I make you imagine how their fried fish melts in your mouth, bones and head and everything? Their stuffed mussels? Ten times better than any other version I’ve tasted before. Even their desert – a humble baked squash drizzled with honey and sprinkled with walnuts – is delicious, just like their other mains like the shepherd’s salad with gourmet cheese from Anatolia, the shrimp baked in a clay pot, the squid…. oh, brother, I don’t know how we’ll cope with the dreaded Mongolian cow’s head stew after this.
No wonder the fish is so tasty in Istanbul. Half of the city’s population hangs out by the Bosphorus and Golden Horn, trying to get the best catch of the day or just for fun. They can do whatever they please with their fish: keep it, sell it, slice it and sushi it up on a piece of newspaper right there on the shores. The crowd of enthusiasts and professionals keep at it from dawn till dusk and even later into the night.
But just walking along the sea will not do for a perfect end of our meal, says Ozgur. So he takes us to the best ice-cream address in Bebek, a hole-in-the-wall that we are sharing here with you. If you’ve tasted the sticky Turkish dondurma, well, this place makes a 5.1 version of it.
As we walk by the many boats tied along the shores of this posh neighbourhood, we learn that one of them is about to become a floating concert hall for the next couple of hours. It’ll set sail any minute now, so we grab three tickets and jump in along with a very young and artsy crowd. Lights off, drinks start pouring, boats starts dancing on waves and… the voice of Birsen Tezer makes the air tremble. We’re charmed. I close my eyes and listen how the sound becomes the sea, the seagulls, a beating heart of someone falling in love. Isn’t Istanbul a wonderful city? says Birsen after the first song ends. We are lucky to live in such a fantastic place, let’s drinks to this.
The next day we sort out the Tajikistan visa. Foodie samples of the day: lentil soup in a meyhana at lunch, an Adana kebap at Durumzade, and a wet hamburger while walking through Taksim – which has recently heated up. Dinner is fancy: Ozgur makes us sample the otoman cuisine at an establishment that serves stuffed eggplants, artichokes in olive oil, whole-baked lamp and stuff like that for over a century. Again, the dishes resemble some than we have adopted in Romania into our national cuisine, but the taste has nothing to do with what we’ve known from home. I’m not sure why we are calling them by the same name. In our version of this delights, the spices, the technique of cooking, the quality of the ingredients – are all missing. For example the dolmas – vine leaves stuffed with rice – are something that you much eat at every wedding, funeral and baptism in Romania. At home Ana hates them, as they are usually oily and tasteless; this ones are made with herbs and dried fruits and cooked in olive oil, so she gulps them joyfully. If her mum could see her…
But no adventure is free of turbulences. When I call Bucharest to check in my parcel, I learn that I has arrived, it passed customs but now there is no viable method to have it shipped to Istanbul. By courier or cargo plane it costs a fortune, plus I should pay again the taxes they’ve charged in Bucharest’s airport. And not even the busses that do daily runs to Istanbul will not take it. For some reason they’ve changed their mind, as a week ago I was assured it will be ok, now the bus companies refuse my parcel, one by one. I have the option to have someone drive to the border of Bulgaria with my parcel, or I can ride myself back to Bucharest to pick it up. After a few moments of confusion, I decide to go with the second plan. Fitting the safari tank on the side of the road is risky, it’s better I do it in my garage, where I’ll have all the tools I might need. Anyway, riding to the border of Bulgaria means there would be only about 60km more until home. So at 7 a.m. here I am rushing back to where I’ve come from. Which makes me conclude that this expedition will have two starts, just like the previous leg of our journey. I guess we’ll have to wait and see how all these play out…
Ana: After Ionut leaves to Romania to sort out the shipping disaster, we continue our culinary journey at three: I, Ozgur and his g-friend. Passing by one of the oldest brick buildings still standing in Constantinople we arrive at the feet of Galata tower. Legend has it that a pioneer of early aviation once flew from this tower with handmade wings. This is a dangerous man, the Murad Khan said, he must be able to do anything he might put his mind at. It’s not safe for us to have someone like him hanging around. So the visionary was sent to die in exile in Algeria. A breakthrough in any field scares people, and why is that I don’t know.
We dont’ find the brunch we were looking for, but we step into a more contemporary restaurant, which serves fusion cuisine. Centuries old recipes are reinvented, old imperial dishes are celebrated, and everything on the menu is starring the best locals ingredients. Minuscule dolmas with rosemary and mint, Maş çorbası a Gaziantep soup of wheat, lentils and tomatoes, minced meat pie baked between two layers of wheat, Sirken & Hindibağ kavurma – local wild herbs sautéed in olive oil with figs and other dried fruit. Another meal to die for.
A few kilometers of walking buy us the right to sample some Turkish sweets. The famous Güllüoğlu is the address for this since 1820. And my Turkish friends teach me that this caloric bombs are even tastier with a dollop of kaymak on top. They say that this is the food in heaven, as the dead do not need to worry about the extra kilos or a coronary stroke. And if that sounds exaggerated, that is because you haven’t tasted yet the Turkish kaymak, and I sincerely urge to.
By the way, the best kaymak maker in the city is an 85 years old man, Pando Usta, of Bulgarian descent. I’ve passed by his shop, but he was not open. he’s a sort of a kaymak nazy they say. To make kaymak, buffalo milk is slowly heated in baine-marie, then the fat is skimmed and allowed to cool. The result is something between butter and cream. To spend this bonus calories we stroll again along the canal, where the fishing community is doing what they do best. And some artist has even left a reason to throw your hook for a larger prey.
At midnight it’s time for me to pay for my culinary sins: Ozgur helps me borrow a bicycle and we join 4000 people for Istanbul’s first Velonotte event. The idea was to tour the historical part of the city while a professor would broadcasts information over radio. In typical Asian style it does not work out this way. We crowd into the streets in a madness of cyclists and confused cars, but it’s good fun and good workout. Around 2 a.m. we abandon the tour, but many stayed until 6, even attending the final tea-party (where one was supposed to bring their own cookies). Aferim!
The foodie week in Istanbul cannot be complete without a proper Turkish breakfast. For the locals this is a full meal, but I cannot imagine who could make it through the day if they would do breakfast, then lunch, then tea and sweets and finally a just as opulent dinner. Our morning feast takes place at Bourdain’s Kale Cafe in Rumeli, an Istanbul institution. We go for regular kahvaltı – halemi grilled cheese from Cyprus, Turkish white and yellow cheese, olives in vinaigrette, salad and menemen and a selection of fresh bread. The lavaş – something like a phylo bread – is meant to to savoured while steaming hot and with bal kayak, which means the above mentioned delight drenched in honey. Shall I say that teat is unlimited? But hey, who has roos for so much tea, really?
In the meantime in Romania the drama of the Safari tank for the KTM continues. John takes over for details:
John: I cut straight across Bulgaria to save time, but I still have about 650 km of highways to negotiate, stopping only at gas stations to pour more coffee into my system. 8 hours of marathon later I’m in the garage, and I finally get to open the box I’ve waited for almost 3 months to arrive.
The blow take me by surprise: even though i have repeatedly warned the shop in the USA that the parcel will go through two forwarders and that they must secure the packaging as well as they can, all the small fitting parts have been put in a regular ziplock bag. The bag is torn and washers and other bits are floating in the cardboard box. I cringe. I start counting. There’s plenty missing: some of the stuff I can easily replace at any hardware store, but some are irreplaceable!
I remember that this dude, Bob from www.wildwalk.ro, used to have the same 690 fitted with the same Safari tank, that he has sold to someone. Could he be in contact with the new owner? Well, he is, and the new owner, Alex, proved one hell of a guy. His KTM has been in an accident and is stored in a service shop, but he is willing to help me out and borrow the missing parts. For a hile, until I can figre out a better solution to this mess. As it’s Saturday the service shop is closed. We find someone who works there and all Sunday we wait for a return call, hoping that we can transplant the parts from one KTM to another as soon as possible.
That only happens on Monday morning. Tank fitted and checked, I am ready to ride back to Istanbul. But it s past noon and I’m already out of steam. I take on the hundreds of Ks of highway and Bulgarian traffic, stopping only at gas stations to fill up and pour more caffeine into my deranged system.
About 9 p.m. I fall flat on Ozgur’s doorstep. A generous dinner awaits: a Doner kebap the size of my arm, lahmacun and ayran. Plus the cure for all sorrow and pain – Şalgam, black carrot juice. Thanks Bob, thanks you Alex! Tessekur ederim Ozgur!
See 2013 – Turkey larger