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END OF EUROPE

May 21st, 2016 in Istanbul

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It's sometimes hard trying to explain why we're doing this trip by bicycle. One of the benefits are that you can basically go more or less anywhere. Another that it is way to discovering one's personal limits, be it grovelling up a pass, shredding one's nerves downhill or just one's persistents during a downpour. 

But before all of that it's an escape. An escape from the rat race, the big screen TV and everything that you're “suppose” to do/be at our age. An escape back to nature and solitude while at the same time taking us to new exciting places and people.

We putting this out there because people seem to think that we're really into bikes. We aren't bicyclists! Not really. We've never gone out biking for a whole day just for the joy of cycling. We didn't enjoy researching frames and gears for this trip. We are just two people who decided bicycles was the best way to discover the countries between Sweden and Singapore. If anything we are tourers - which really is just fancy-talk for a hobos on wheels. 

And we have cycled to Istanbul!!! 

Istanbul is the city that straddles the gap between Europe and Asia. We have cycled right through Europe, more than 3 100 km and climbed approximately 17 600 m, equal to almost two Mt. Everest (at least according to our cycling computers). The roads have been both good (we love you wonderful cycling path) and bad with sand, potholes and disrespectful drivers. Istanbul marks the end of Europe and the end of our honeymoon-phase. Before we started, cycling to Istanbul sounded and felt such a long distance away but it didn't feel like that when we actually cycled it. Well, maybe except for that week in Serbia when it didn't want to stop pouring down on us… 

But we're getting ahead of ourselves…

As we moved through Europe the landscape and the culture has slowly changed around us. The lack of English has gotten more and more palpable. And we do find it challenging at times, not to be able to make oneself understood. It can be really frustrating when no matter how much you use your body language or even Google translate, your point just isn't coming across. And it is not like it is going to get any better...

Understanding Robin

Leaving Belgrade, heading for Bulgaria, there were an evident contrast between the different parts of Serbia. The roads suddenly had more potholes and the houses were… well not as whole. Everything just started to feel more poor and rough. This is also when the stray dogs started to make an regular appearance. Also, the weather didn't help as it rained for several days making the world and our moods grey and gloomy. To lighten the mood we had to take the day off in Nis for some warmth, beer and Game of thrones. After all, it is suppose to be kind of a vacation this adventure of ours! 

All and all, we really liked the first half of Serbia, particularly Belgrade, but after that, we found the southeastern countryside a bit… meh. We did however appreciate strangers giving us hard boiled eggs for reasons we still do not know. We suspect it had to do with orthodox Easter though.

The first night in Bulgaria we had a hard time finding anywhere to set up our tent as the road followed the bottom of a canyon. As we were forced to set up camp a bit too visible from the road we decided that we had to get up early to avoid detection, seeing as you aren't allowed to camp wherever you want in Bulgaria. Little did we know that we had changed time zone when we entered Bulgaria so as we were packing down everything at what we thought was little after 7 o'clock we had a surprise visit from the Bulgarian police! After checking our passports they looked relieved and went on their way. I guess we weren't the droids refugees they were looking for. In all honesty, we are quite spoilt with our Swedish passports.  

In contrast to Serbia, the capital of Bulgaria, Sofia, didn't really agree with us as they didn't do breakfast and too many places closed to early. Though we did accidently join a pub crawl we couldn't help but enjoy. 

Staying true to that contrast, the countryside outside Sofia rewarded us with beautiful hills and wonderful campsites straight out of Hyrule…even if we had to share it with some cows.

Our route from Bulgaria to Turkey took us close to the Greece border so we really had to make a short detour to include it. The few hours we spent in Greece was quite awesome as we rescued two turtles from becoming squashed on the motorway, got a free Greek lunch including ouzo from a mysterious bearded man and had to navigate ourselves over a flooded road. 

Our first night in Turkey we spent in Erdine with Engin, a host from the Warmshowers community (like coachsurfing but for cyclists). It was our first time staying with a host so we didn't know what to expect. However, Engin had experience for the three of us, showing us Turkish hospitality as he plied us with tea and invited friends over for a BBQ. It was a good night where we learnt a lot about the Turkish culture while being asked a lot of good questions like is Robin really that old (32) and is Ida a Targeryan?! 

To our hosts dismay we were not able to stay another night in Erdine, nor did we visit any of the museum he considered necessary. We did however make it to one of the mosques. It's hard to not consider the long-term damage of popular culture when Robin can't see a mosque from a distance without thinking of Disney world. 

As Engin had pointed out several times, the road between Erdine and Istanbul was quite monotonous. Apparently, in Turkey, it is common for cyclists to camp at gas stations along the road so in between Erdine and Istanbul we tried it out ourselves. It was not the quietest place to sleep nor particular scenic but we were allowed to use their facilities and off course we were offered tea. 

As we neared Istanbul we decided to take a detour, entering the city from the north, in order to be able to avoid the crazy traffic that is Istanbul. Doing this, we entered a national park and our surroundings became significantly more beautiful. Unfortunately though, this national park is where half of Istanbul goes for the weekend to BBQ and get in touch with nature…

On a boat!

Finally in Istanbul, we met up with Ida's parents who had come down to visit. With them we spent a couple of days trying to relax and exploring the city in between washing, fixing the bikes, updating the webpage, trying to decide our route through Turkey and everything else that needed to be done.

As Eva and Gert left for the airport Ida was reminded once again of that feeling she had that day when we started cycling. The sadness of leaving mixed with the excitement of once again being on our own, with our adventure in front of us. It was hard not to get a little bit homesick. Lucky then, that the hostel we moved to had kittens that soon had her thinking of betting things. 

The cats of Istanbul is probably worthy of an honorably mention. Not only are they absolutely everywhere but they are also quite healthy and friendly. The city is filled with little cat-houses and instead of money, the recycling stations dispense cat food in a little bowl. It's quite cool to see cats coexisting with the people of the city in such perfect symbiosis. 

Tomorrow will start our next chapter of this journey - Asia. We haven't exactly decided our route through Turkey yet except that we'll start along the Black Sea Coast to be able to enjoy a swim or two after a hard and sweaty day on our bikes. 

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