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Strange But Wonderful

Crossing into Turkey turned out to be a smooth operation. As usual, we drove straight to the front past the usual line of lorries. There wasn't even that much traffic trying to cross. I guess two straight days of confusion and violence had made most Georgians leery of doing business as usual in Turkey. We on the other hand had places to see and a journey to finish so across we went!

We had modified our plans slightly and reduced our stay in Turkey by two days, due to not knowing exactly what was going on in Istanbul and hedging on the side of personal safety. It was a mistake we realized as we were leaving the country and heading to Greece.

Our route took us to the north along the Black Sea coast. This was a deliberate choice because when we were planning the trip, there had been reports of foreigners being kidnapped in the south and used for ransom amongst the warring factions in Syria. That sounded like quite the adventure buzzkill so we figured less of that would be happening in the resort towns of the Black Sea where tourism dollars are the mainstay of the economy. Plus, swimming in the Black Sea every day seemed like a nice alternative to potentially being kidnapped by Jihadis. The coup attempts two days before, however, were unanticipated and added a level of anxiety even to our chosen safe path.

To add to the ambiance and anxiety Turkey is a predominantly Muslim country compared to the rest of Central Asia, which had its Muslim legacy largely wiped out under decades of Soviet rule. Our first night's hotel stay was directly behind a mosque and we were shocked by the volume of the scratchy loudspeaker blaring the five-times-daily call to prayer.

Our second and third nights were spent in Samsun and Sinop respectively, both lovely small coastal resort towns. Nice views of the Black Sea and wonderful swimming but largely devoid of foreign tourists. The hospitality was great but there was a palpable unease in the air and it wasn't a mystery why there was an absence of tourists during what would normally be high season. Prices were dirt cheap too.

We eventually rolled into Istanbul, amazed at the number of flags patriotically displayed everywhere, and pulled up to the incredible five-star Pera Palace Hotel. Entering the main lobby was like being on the set of a Wes Anderson film. It has the distinction of being the oldest European hotel and it features the first electric elevator in Istanbul.

The chain on my motorcycle was in its death throes, so the first thing I asked of the amazingly attentive concierge was if he knew of a competent local motorcycle shop that could install a new chain. He told me to unpack and relax, that he was on it and would have an answer soon.

After a quick shower in the flawlessly maintained period-correct bathroom, I got a call from the concierge to come downstairs and meet the mechanic who would be working on my bike. I called Nick, because he never wanted to be too far from work being done on the bikes, and we hopped on the girls and took off following the mechanic on his bike through the windy streets of Istanbul at breakneck speeds.

After a brief but thrilling ride, we ended up at Has Motors and were greeted warmly by the owner. The bike went immediately up on the lift and the mechanics started working on getting the old chain off the bike. For some reason, my old chain did not want to give up the ghost and they struggled for quite a long time until they finally took a power saw to it and cut it off.


In the meantime, the new chain had shown up, ordered from some other place in Istanbul, and they made short work of installing it. While waiting, Nick and I ordered pizza and had it delivered for everyone at the shop, which was greatly appreciated.

With the work complete, the mechanic stretched a bungee cord between the mirror posts on each of our handlebars, creating a convenient place to store gloves (a brilliant hack btw). We hopped back on the bikes and lit off for the hotel following our slightly insane leader as he popped wheelies up every hill and drug knees on every curve. We made it to the hotel in one piece and after salutes and hugs, we bid farewell. Not exactly your typical tour of Istanbul but one Nick and I will never forget.

That night we dined on the rooftop of a nearby hotel that was in the highest place in Istanbul and was treated to spectacular 360-degree views of the setting sun. We could see precisely where Asia meets Europe and we each had a deep understanding of the importance of Istanbul's magical place in the world.

The next day we toured the famed Grand Bazaar. Built in the 1400s, it's one of the oldest covered markets in the world and is called the world's first shopping mall. The traveler's warning in Turkey, "Avoid crowded places and places where people congregate,” was running through my head because the place was packed with people. However, the sights, sounds, and smells from all the candles and spices were intoxicating and drowned out any anxious thought.

Later that night Mike and Nick wanted to go to Taksim Square, in the heart of the city and a short walk from the hotel. Word had it that there was going to be a political rally there and once again the travelers’ advisory flashed through my mind. I told them to enjoy themselves and to be careful, that I would be chilling at the hotel.

They got back several hours later, excited and chomping at the bit to show me the photos they had taken. They said at first they were a little nervous because they were caught up in the massive crowds that were assembling in the square, but that the mood was festive and joyful and that everyone was glad that foreigners were there recording what was going on. The rally was a pro-Erdoğan celebration of unity and many of the revelers were from out of town and had brought their whole families.


I regretted my decision to stay back immediately but I was happy that Nick and Mike had made it back safely.

The reality on the streets of Istanbul was that many felt that Erdoğan had staged the coup attempt so that he could round up and jail or kill his opponents. It was all just a brutal power grab. Life had returned to close to normal but most of the people of Istanbul remained leery of Erdoğan’s Islamist leanings and were not sure what the future held for the nexus of where East meets West.

As we were leaving the following day, we all pledged to return and that we regretted cutting our stay short because there was so much more to unearth in this incredible, culturally rich place.

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