All white in Istanbul!
It's -1C today in Istanbul and the city is blanketed in 2 days of snowfall, unshaken by the earthquake that rumbled through town yesterday! This adventure has in no way come to an end just with arrival. I should point out that I didn't even notice the earthquake (which measured 6.2 at it's epicentre in the Aegean sea) as I was on a bumpy city train at the time (although the timing does link in with the temporary blackout in the carriage). But the experts warn that there will be a big quake in Istanbul at some point - they just don't know when. I hope I haven't walked all this way to witness it!
The final 200km walking continued to bare witness to the kindness of human hearts, the tedium of long straight roads, the beauty of nature and the contrast in emotions I have experienced all along the way. After an extended stay in Keşan to allow the first snowfall and ice to thaw, during which I began my 'turkish education' of food, tea, nargiles (smoking water pipes) and a 3 day effort to master the word for 'thankyou' - I was back on the road. From the border to Istanbul I was following the D110/D100 - which is like a long, straight A30 from Exeter that rolls gently over endless hills, upto 3km long and required some inventive mental escapism. On Christmas eve I stopped by a local cafe to meet Hussein. I had been advised to call in on him by a Benjamin and Tletymess (a french couple who walked to Istanbul about 2 weeks ahead of me) and say 'hello' from them. I was rewarded with a big hug from Hussein and a wonderful lunch of traditional soup (sheep lungs floating in there - looks a bit like some white sponges in cream), kofte, honey roasted pumpkin and tea.
Having decided that I wanted to walk on Christmas day I stopped for the night at a petrol station, where they offered me a space for my tent in the outdoor restaurant area. As it was winter and unused, all the tables and chairs were stacked up and I felt like a kid again, building a den out of furniture and my tent - just like I used to with my brother. So for the first time in over a decade, I woke up on "Christmas" day without a hangover but in a petrol station! It was a cold but clear, sunny day and I donned my Santa hat and set off on my "Christmas" walk. At another petrol station I was offered tea by the old guy working there and thus the now common loop begins - I stop somewhere for the loo, they offer me tea, we drink tea and I need the loo again! In the afternoon I treated myself to a hotel and a bottle of wine and Christmas skyped lovely people back home. The sun burn/ wind burn and wine made my face almost the same colour as my hat and apart from the communication back to England there was nothing "christmas" about the day (hence the " " marks). As a Muslim country it isn't celebrated or even noticed, a normal working day for most. I have long been a cynic of the over-hype of Christmas so I wasn't too bothered, plus I think if there had been lots of focus on it, it would only have made me homesick.
So the next day I walked across the town of Tekirdag to spend "boxing day" with a host (not before a stranger from the street had invited me for çay (tea) of course) and after another day I headed on again. The road follows the coast quite closely and there are large holiday village developments on either side which were completely deserted. I spent one last night in my tent for the year, waking up on new years eve at a campsite right on the Marmara sea in beautiful sunshine. NYE was a very understated night with a host, drinking some homemade wine and listening to some fireworks/gunfire in the street as announcement of midnight. And on January 2nd I reached the outskirts of the city.
Istanbul (like Rome) is known as the city of 7 hills but there are definitely more on the route I arrived by. I effectively came in by the back door, passing highrises, shopping centres and increasing volumes of buildings and traffic. As night came the city lights of traffic snaked away ahead of me, winding up another hill and branching off to more neighbourhoods. The traffic lanes kept multiplying from 2, 4, 6, 8, the lights got brighter and the noise got louder. As throughout the whole of this trip I had stubbornly told myself I would walk right upto the bridge across the Bosphorus strait, it took me 2 1/2 days to cross the city and very happily I was able to leave my bag and trolley with my host for the last day.
I hardly slept that penultimate night, knowing tomorrow I would arrive, after all this time, all those footsteps. My head was as busy as the city traffic with memories, faces, places, words. It reminded me of the night before I left Falmouth - when I had again struggled to sleep and then woken up at 4 am to be sick from nerves. This huge thing I was going to ask myself to do - and here I was, almost 1 year later feeling the same about it's completion.
I felt a little guilty about leaving my bag and Rolland the trolley behind for this last 30km but it meant I could take a much more leisurely route. I entered the old city through a gate in the remains of the old walls. I wandered along the streets past the sites like the Grand Bazaar, the Blue Mosque, Ayasofya, Topkapi Palace. I mingled with the hoards of tourists feeling very strange, under and over whelmed at the same time, taking photos just like them but thinking 'you have no idea how I got here!' As I crossed the Galata bridge over the Golden Horn, passing the lines of fishermen hanging over the side, I heard someone say my name. I looked around to instantly recognise Alessandro (the Italian guy who had walked to Istanbul 2 months previously and had been sending hints and tips for the final approach) and we shared a hug. I think he knew a little bit the sort of 'rabbit-in-the-headlights' swirl of emotions I was feeling. At the foot of the Bosphorus bridge I ate burek and ayran (yoghurt drink) for lunch and looked across the water at the continent of Asia.
Writing this now I can feel my heart pounding and my knees jiggling (which could just be coffee and 1000's of walked kms!) but at the time I just took some pictures and put some of my favourite songs on my headphones and walked on along the waters edge. A couple of songs brought some tears to the back of my eyes, they had accompanied through many a tough km; and it wasn't until later that night that the happiness caught up with arriving. I met up with my host Sevilay when she finished work and we went to meet her friends for a drink. Someone asked me what I was doing in Istanbul and I said 'I just walked here' and I could feel the grin and relief on my face, and soon after a tequila in my hand!
The last few days have been a combination of relaxing, walking around (i still can't stop walking), more not sleeping while my body adapts and meeting up with people who are here. I treated my body to the Hamam I had promised it every time it gave me grief along the way, met walkers and cyclists I had crossed on the road or been in contact with online (having experienced so much on my own it was so lovely to share experiences and stories with them as we had often travelled the same routes and met the same people) . There has also been the extra treat of the beautiful sight of Istanbul in the snow as it has been falling for the last 3 days. And for the next few weeks I think it will be more of the same - I have a lot of postcards to write, a whole city to see and live in, and another adventure to dream up. To quote a very good friend of mine "A flippant idea thrown across a bar table has become a truly epic and inspirational achievement."
Thankyou from the bottom of my heart and the murky depths of my walking bootsfor sharing it with me :-)