Week eight - Looking east

It's 6.21am. The morning is cool, but the light that lowly spreads across the rooftops of Istanbul is warm. In front of me, the burnt orange walls of the Aya Sofya are backlit. Behind me the domes, towers and minarets of the Sultan Ahmed Mosque are fully bathed in sun. A tanker churns lazily up the Bosphorus, its wake splits splits west from east, Europe from Asia, familiarity from the unknown.

I have reached Istanbul, the first major checkpoint in my journey from London to New Zealand.

Istanbul is a geographical bottleneck for overland travellers. I expected that meetings with other long distance cyclists might be more frequent around the city. In Kirklareli I met two French cyclists cycling from Lyon to Beijing. 150 kilometres from Istanbul I met Yuri, a mechanical engineer who does windsurfing and Alpine downhill long-boarding.

In Europe my custom when meeting a traveller is to bond over a beer. In Turkey alcohol is taxed and therefore enjoyed in moderation by the humble cycle tourer. Good food on the other hand, is cheap. Very cheap. Accordingly, Yuri and I stopped for lunch to bond over two kebabs with Ayran (popular Turkish yoghurt drink) for £1.50.

We combined forces for the remaining distance to Istanbul, aiming for the town of Sariyer, 10 miles north of Istanbul on the banks of the Bosphorus. From there we would take a ferry to the center.

We first first sighted the spectacular Bosphorus from the hills overlooking Sariyer. The descent to the shoreline however was so steep that my brakes failed completely. I dismounted and slid down the hill after my bike, desperately trying to find traction in my cleated cycling shoes.

Heaving the bikes onto the river ferry, the remaining ten miles to my warm showers host in Kadiköy were blessedly easy.

It was an important weekend in Istanbul. The build up to election weekend was impossible to miss. Bunting had lined the streets of every town since I crossed the border and minivans plastered with the faces of the contending politicians incessantly blared music and propaganda.

I sat up on Sunday evening with my host and her friends, watching the results come in. I was told that whatever the outcome, someone would be rioting on Monday morning and I should take care around town. Erdogan won, and life seemed to crash onwards in Istanbul in its usual chaotic manner.

A care package arrived from London on Monday evening, in the form of my Dad and sister. We have done several European city breaks in the past as a triplet, to Rome and Florence. Istanbul seemed like the perfect graduation.

We squeezed a weeks worth of sightseeing into two precious days. The faded orange exterior of the Hagia Sofia was beautiful, and the inside displayed a fascinating combination of Christian and Islamic influences due its conversion from church to mosque by the conquering Ottomans.

The floor lighting in the Basillica cistern was eerie, as were the great stone Medusa heads. One theory for their being upside down is that that Byzantine builders were making a statement that Roman architecture was “little more than reusable rubble.”

The Topkaki Palace took half a day and provided some great views of the city.

In the Turkish and Islamic Arts Museum we saw relics of Prophet Muhammad's beard and pages of the original Quran.

My Dad’s arrival was particularly poignant for both of us. In 1993 Istanbul marked the finish line of his year and a half long walk across Europe from Spain to Turkey. One evening as light fell we traced his final footsteps through Gülhane Park, down past the Ataturk Statue and finally to the waterfront, where Asia stretched out before us. Sitting under a lamp in the park, Dad read aloud the final pages of his journal "The home coming, long dreamt. And now the journey not the home is the dream." In this spot his odyssey ended, and a new chapter of mine began.

It was wonderful to see my family again. Before this journey I was sad about leaving home for so long. I preemptively mourned for the memories and moments I would miss, and wondered whether I, they, or circumstances might have changed by the time I came home.

The last few days have been a reassurance. Seeing my family was a joy, and when they left I knew that while we or our circumstances might change, the trust and the love will remain.

On our last evening we watched the sunset from the courtyard of the majestic Süleymaniye Camii mosque, before returning to the hotel roof terrace for a thunderous firework display over the Blue Mosque. Connie took this picture.


  1. What a great opportunity for the family reunion / celebration in Istanbul. So pleased that you have been able to meet up. Very best wishes for riding the next continent Kit.


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