Friends: Istanbul is Seattle with mosques. Both are hilly cities at the confluence of multiple waterways that are continually bustling with ferries. The hills of Istanbul, though, are dominated by magnificently domed, grandiose mosques with multiple minarets puncturing the sky. Most are older than the American republic, built by assorted sultans over the centuries, each trying to leave a stunning legacy.
Istanbul is equally dominated by its water front. Only two recently built bridges span the Bosporus Strait over to Asia. Ferries still are kept busy transporting people across the Strait and out to assorted islands in the Sea of Marama. The waterways and bridges are lined with hundreds of fishermen standing shoulder to shoulder all the day long for miles and miles hauling in anchovies. Fishing boats and yachts are docked along the shorelines and big time freighters perpetually chug by.
The waterways are nearly as clogged with traffic as the streets of the city. The bike is easily the best way to defeat all the roadway congestion, but few are brave enough to attempt it. In thirty miles yesterday and fifty today, ranging all over on my trusty steed, I saw not even ten others on bicycles. The big surprise was meeting about that many European touring cyclists walking about the city taking a break from the bicycle after a couple of months of riding. If I hadn't been on my bike we would never have connected. Thanks to the racks and multiple water bottles adorning my bike, they all recognized me fellow touring cyclist and flagged me down, eager for some bonding.
Despite the increasingly wintry weather, touring cyclists continue to funnel through Turkey on their way to the Middle East and beyond. The first I met, Adria, was a student from Barcelona taking a year off before his final year of college to bicycle around the Mediterranean. He chased after me as I was pedaling past the Mosque of Suleyman the Magnificent, the largest mosque in the city. Like most I have met on this trip, this was his first bicycle tour, and he was having the time of his life.
After an hour over a tea we decided to join up the next day for a ride up the 25 miles of the Bosporus Strait from Istanbul to the Black Sea. Adria knew Istanbul well, as he had been here for two weeks and was staying for two more. He'd rented a room in an apartment with two Frenchmen and one German, who are students here. His parents are flying in to spend Christmas with him.
We had to break off our tea as I needed to get to the tourist office before it closed to find out about seeing a basketball game and also to locate the street where all the bicycle stores are congregated, as they, as with most like businesses here, flock together. I didn't need any bicycle parts at this point, but I certainly wanted to see what the bike shops of Istanbul might offer and to get a lead on the Thursday Night Ride.
Just a block from the tourıst office, I was waylaid by a young couple from Australia who recognized my Surly touring bike, as the guy had one himself. He and his wife weren't on bikes here, in for just a quick two week vacation, but they had toured elsewhere and were eager to talk touring. Me too, but I kept checking my watch to make sure I could make it to the tourist office before it closed at five.
I just made it. I learned that the professional basketball teams in Turkey just play once a week on the weekends, so I won't have the opportunity to see Allen Iverson playing with a bunch of Turks. Someone later told me one of the reasons they only play once a week and just on weekends is that the weekday traffic is so bad no one would be able to get to the games on time. I also learned that Iverson is not the dominant force people thought this former NBA MVP would be and that he seems to be devoting more effort to courting the 19-year old daughter of the team owner than to his game.
It was easy to find the cluster of bike shops, as I only needed to follow the tram line from in front of the tourist office to the major train station. The shops were packed together for two blocks. They were basically cramped wholesale outlets that did no repairs and were staffed by their owners, older gentlemen all, who didn't appear to be bicyclists. I was hoping to find young mechanics who liked to ride their bikes and could tell me about Istanbul's Critical Mass and weekly Thursday night rides. No one knew anything about them. The best lead I got was to check the local bicycle website bisikletforum.com.
After I left bike shop lane I was snagged by yet two more bikeless touring cyclists, one English and the other French, who were cycling to Syria and beyond. They had met up recently, but both had bicycled all the way from their home countries, the French guy on his own pulling a trailer and the English guy with a friend. After a lengthy debriefing we retreated to their hostel just a couple blocks away to meet up with the other English cyclist and to see if I cared to move from my more expensive hostel to theirs.
They too were all on their maiden bicycle tour and were gushing youthful enthusiasm while expressing great interest in my travels, past and present. My jaw from all these animated conversations was feeling more fatigue than my legs after a hundred mile day in the mountains. I had to break that conversation off as I had a dinner engagement with a dorm mate from my hostel, an 80-year old Englishman who had been in Istanbul for fourteen years, not returning home once in all that time, teaching English. He had led a fascinating life of travel and adventure and spoke with the regal tenor of Peter O'Toole. He did most of the talking, so I didn't have to worry about going hoarse.
For the first time in Turkey I met an American on a bicycle the next day as Adria I were riding together. He had had a grand tour with his wife three years ago riding from Amsterdam to Kazakhstan that was curtailed when his wife was hit. They had liked Istanbul so much they stayed here for her recovery rather than going back to LA, and have been here ever since. He has been teaching English at a university, while his wife has found work in public relations.
He couldn't tell me anything about the Thursday night rides, but he was a regular on the local Critical Mass. Unlike most around the world, Istanbul's Critical Mass varies its starting point. They tend to stick to the Asia side of Istanbul, as the traffic isn't so bad. Their numbers vary from 25 to 50 depending on the weather. He said there is less of a younger rebel element on their rides than such rides elsewhere. The riders are mostly wealthy cyclists wishing to put on display their expensive bikes. It is still a worthwhile gathering that he wouldn't miss. Their next ride is New Year's Eve, a week after my departure.
We talked and talked in the dark jumping from topic to topic. I was quick to bring up something else to keep him occupied so he wouldn't remember he had a ferry to catch. He had just hosted a couple of touring cyclists, otherwise would have invited us to crash with him. He lived out on Princess Island, a ferry ride of over an hour away. He was the second cyclist we had met who recommended going out to the island for a bike ride, the other a Turkish cyclist at a bike store. They both raved about it as a bicyclist's paradise. The road around the island is only twelve miles, but there are no cars on the island, just bicycles and horse drawn carriages.
Adria will have the time for a visit to the island, but probably not I, with just two days left in Istanbul. I have yet to do any of the serious site-seeing, taking advantage of the dry sunny weather to explore as many precincts as I can on the bike, putting off the museums and palaces for the rainy days. I would be happy to just linger with a book or newspaper near the sites tourists frequent to see what other fascinating characters my touring bike might attract. There seem to be an endless supply of them here.