Friends: The last eight miles of my travels about Turkey into the heart of Istanbul were on a bike path of all things. Those final miles along the Sea of Marmara would have been as glorious as any of my tens of thousands of miles all over the world if I hadn't been riding in yet another cold drizzle.
Istanbul was living up to its reputation. December is its wettest month. My spirit still had some buoyancy to it though, closing in on this storied city and the end of my travels. I was already getting a flavor of the city as I gazed upon the countless minarets poking skyward up ahead. I was waiting for an extra surge of delight when I spotted the Blue Mosque. To my right out in the waterway were dozens, rather hundreds, of freighters filling the sea. The bike path was marked by turquoise lines rather than the customary green. A few fishermen were the only other ones braving the elements.
If I had been a day earlier the slender park area would have been teeming with people, as it had been a rare sunny day, my first in nearly a week. I took full advantage of it riding til past dark not minding at all that I was challenged to find a place to camp in the huge sprawl of this metropolis of twelve million. It added up to my first eighty-mile day in over a month, leaving me, thirty miles to the city center.
I was having such a pleasurable final romp in those warmer sunny temperatures, I was reconsidering my leanings to return home from Istanbul rather than pushing on to Athens, 700 miles away. It doesn't take much to revive my spirits, despite the battering they've taken recently. But I quickly wised up when a late afternoon wickedly cold wind began gusting off the sea like a slap in the face, threatening another turn for the worst in the weather.
How could I forget winter was just approaching, and conditions would only worsen. Why would I wish to subject myself to more of these wintry trying times that put my devotion to spending my days upon the bike to an extreme test. It always elevates the spirit to be on the bike, but the short days and iffy camping, along with the often dire weather, don't allow the full transcendence I haven't been getting enough of lately.
I found a superb campsite in some tall reeds after being rejected by a gas station and a hotel and also from a small clump of trees by a couple of barking dogs. I didn't get a great deal of sleep, though, as the raging wind slapped my rain fly into the tent all night. I kept waiting for the rain to start pelting down, but it held off until mid-morning shortly before I reached the airport, just as I was praying it would.
I stopped at the airport to check on the possibility of changing my return flight from Athens. The weather had turned so miserable once again, I feared I might just hop on the next British Air flight to London and forgo Istanbul if they offered me a seat. But Heathrow was presently snowed in, so I was spared any such temptation. The British Air office was swamped by people desperate to escape Istanbul seeking alternate flights to Europe. One was a young British cyclist who'd been on the road for six months. He'd made it as far as Antalya on the Mediterranean and was stymied by the cold and wet. He had just flown into Istanbul from Antalya with his bike in a box.
These final trying conditions hadn't dimmed his enthusiasm. He'd had a marvelous six months and was fully aglow with that touring cyclist elixir of satisfaction. There is no mistaking it nor faking it. It is easy to identify the touring cyclist at a hostel full of backpackers or a campgrounds full of caravaners. They are the ones with hearts so light they almost seem to levitate. Their faces are painted with a shine of bliss.
The British Air staff at the airport weren't able to change my flight, though they tried. I was told I would have to call their office the next morning, Monday, to have it taken care of. I was assured there were plenty of seats available. As I headed out the terminal, I noticed two other cyclists off in a corner with gear scattered about. It wasn't clear if they were arriving or departing, assembling or disassembling their bikes.
They were departing, reducing their gear to try to get under the weight limit of thirty kilos each for a flight to Hong Kong. They were a young French couple who had been turned away from Syria. They had just completed a thousand-mile bus trip across the country back to Istanbul, so they could make a big hop to the warmer temperatures of southern China. They had backpacked in China two years ago and loved their time there and wanted to return.
This was their first bike trip and they didn't want it to end. They had set out from Lyons four months ago. Their English was impeccable having spent eight months in Australia working and traveling a few years ago. They too were genuine travelers who thrived on the life. Though they were still working on getting a flight out of Istanbul, they were not worried. They too were quietly content and joyful, radiating an almost divine quality. We talked for nearly an hour exulting in the joy of travel, another of those treasured conversations I only seem to come by on the road.
They gave me about five pounds of food--noodles, rice, olive oil, sugar, salt, an onion and a bottle of lemon juice. They also gave me a bottle of shampoo and a bottle of detergent. The only item I rejected was three rolls of toilet paper. Even though they were under stress, they were effusive in their enthusiasm. I was happy to convey my love of France and tell them how sensational it is to follow The Tour de France and how much I was looking forward to returning this summer.
The conversation couldn't help but turn to food. We'd all been eating a lot of yogurt, but we longed for the multitude of flavors and variety of French yogurt. Turkish yogurt is all the same, though it comes in much larger containers, up to a gallon or more. The French offer a dazzling array of flavors. The larger grocery stores have an entire aisle's worth to choose from. It is staggering. Even more than flavored yogurt, they missed their cheese from back home. I was looking forward to the 500 gram containers of couscous and potato salad to be found in the deli departments of French supermarkets. They comprise a large part of my diet in France, mixing them with ravioli and cassoulet and quiche.
So now I have four days of playing the tourist in Istanbul. I will get to know this city very well if the weather permits.