The last country where we were in project mode before our long drive home through Europe, Turkey was a place we knew little about and we were excited to explore.
We were also slightly preoccupied. Massive problems with our brakes in Lebanon – at one point we’d lost them completely on a mountain pass – had caused us to miss our ferry so on arrival we were four days behind schedule.
Friends and family had planned summer holidays in France to coincide with the dates that we’d given them which were now looking extremely ambitious: at the end of our time in Turkey we’d have about 4000km to cover before this reunion, we were absolutely exhausted and our brakes still weren’t working properly.
We were definitely feeling the pressure.
Taşucu – en route to Lebanon
Our fortnight in Turkey was split in two, the first couple of days spent in the port town Taşucu where we’d arrived from Cyprus before catching our onward ferry to Lebanon. Obviously this was before failing to catch the boat back again so we’d been quite relaxed and our time in Taşucu had been spent mainly on administration. Notable highlights had been fragrant Turkish coffee, fantastic fish and the first drops of rain we’d felt since Tunisia.
Getting back in
Returning to Taşucu post-Lebanon we are slightly less relaxed and on a mission to experience Turkey more thoroughly.
Getting in is a time consuming process, especially for Lucy with her British passport, who has to drive to another nearby port to buy a visa, while Anne-Laure – travelling on a French passport at this point – doesn’t need a visa at all. Waiting for customs and immigration is time consuming and tedious, with lots of queue barging going on around us.
Finally clear of the port, we start by adjusting our brakes – something we’ve become quite practised at – then head towards Konya, a painfully slow journey with Landy progressing even more slowly than the queue for immigration. We stop several times to feel the brakes, disconnect the air filter, tighten the master cylinder, reconnect the air filter and to let Landy cool down.
By afternoon we’re making better progress although the erratic behaviour of our brakes makes for a rather uncomfortable ride: sometimes they work perfectly, other times barely at all, and occasionally when it seems that everything is fine they unexpectedly lose grip mid pedal depression. The memory of the Lebanese mountain pass hovers over us and is an event we’re anxious not to repeat.
We make it to Konya, a traditional town home to beautiful mosques and whirling dervishes, in time for supper, coming across an odd-looking couple in full bridal-wear posing for pictures: he’s holding a broken violin with no bow while she pretends to sing into a microphone. Apparently they’re a real husband and wife but it seems a bit nonchalant for a wedding day – more like a marketing shoot. In other shots they’re holding hands and it occurs to us that perhaps – in this conservative town – it’s only acceptable to take pictures like this with models who are really are married to one another.
Our supper – whilst delicious – turns into a bizarre sort of dance with waiters obsessively clearing the table before we’ve finished with things. A full plate of sauce, half drunk cup of tea, full glass of mineral water and a glass of Ayran yoghurt – the Turkish national drink – disappear before we become savvy enough to physically hold on to anything we want to keep and even then we spend half the meal fighting off the restaurant staff before giving up and trudging back to our hotel.
After a night spent dreaming of brake master cylinders, Lucy wakes with a new strategy for adjusting ours and rushes out to enact her plan.
Some guys sitting outside a nearby shop find the whole thing very interesting. One of them helps by holding the cylinder while Lucy tightens the bolts. Predictably, he offers to tighten the bolts himself, and – equally predictably – the response is a civil ‘No thank you’. Refreshingly he accepts this immediately and asks if she’s a mechanic – a question we’ve been asked on many occasions since leaving the UK.
At the beginning of the trip our answer to this would have been something along the lines of ‘Well a bit…sort of a bush mechanic really’ but – five months on the road and numerous breakdowns later – it’s now a resounding ‘Yes’. The main reason for this – we’ve learnt the hard way – is that any perceived weakness is likely to have him jumping in with a spanner regardless of our view on the matter, but also the sheer number of ‘mechanics’ we’ve met along the way (most of whom know very little) is unbelievable. And besides…having removed, stripped and replaced it about 12 times in the last two weeks we feel that there is nobody else in the world who knows more about our brake master cylinder than we do at this point.
We already know that the seal inside the cylinder is the wrong size and that the cylinder itself is a hybrid of the two faulty ones we had with us in Lebanon so this constant adjustment is about limiting the extent of the problem rather than curing it.
Gorgeous carpets and kilims are on display all over town and – with a future exhibition in mind – we decide to try and buy one. We’re looking for a large carpet – about six metres by four – but our budget is just £120 so this may be easier said than done.
Our shopping experience starts with an over-sweet cup of apple flavoured tea and a stilted conversation accompanied by diagrams that don’t get us very far. Thankfully, the proprietor recognises this and enlists the help of a friend called Lucky who speaks good English and tells us that he owns a house in London – although on closer interrogation he can’t remember where.
We find four smaller carpets that – put together – suit our brief nicely with the additional bonus of fitting into Landy for transportation home. But the price is £3000. The four potential carpets are laid out in the road and measured and a discussion ensues. Lucky is clearly used to dealing with a different calibre of tourist and initially the price creeps down frustratingly slowly. It helps our cause enormously when a passing car drives straight over the carpets and we just shrug and carry on bargaining. Our point has been made – it’s become clear that we have no interest in buying carpets of any value and have no particular attachment to these ones. We finally reach an agreement.
It hasn’t been entirely painless: after the tea we were given horrible fizzy orange soda and had to listen to Lucky rant about politics. But at £30 a carpet we’re satisfied with our bargaining skills, carefully honed over the duration of our trip. We celebrate with a massive supper plus creamy rice pudding – a decision we immediately regret when we find ourselves too full of food to sleep.
Leaving Konya at 6.30am we drive and drive. Landy is still sluggish but we’re no longer having to make regular pit stops. We see lightning in the distance and shortly afterwards the heavens open in a torrential downpour. We discover that navigating heavy traffic in the rain with puny windscreen wipers and brakes that can best be described as ‘intermittent’ requires quite some concentration.
We make Istanbul in a day – a distance of 687km – which gives us hope for our long mad dash across Europe. The city is spectacularly stunning at night with floodlights illuminating thousands of mosques and other buildings, bridges and boats. The city feels exotic and exciting.
Stopping in Üsküdar on the Asian side of Istanbul we leave Landy in the road for the night, getting up early in the morning to move her to a municipal Otopark. She refuses to start and we find that a fuse has blown, probably from having got so wet the day before.
Doing what – with no power steering – feels like a million point turn in the multi-storey car park a guy offers to park the car for us. With no brakes and a sticky accelerator too at this point we decline politely but what we’re actually thinking is ‘We’d like to see you try’.
Üsküdar has many magnificent ancient buildings and an even more impressive number of cats and enormously fat dogs that everybody seems to feed. We see signs on the street enticing people to donate to the ‘Tip box for street cats’.
Later that day we visit a hammam – long overdue as we hadn’t been able to find one in Lebanon or Israel, Palestine and the Golan Heights – and shed impressive quantities of dirt, chatting to a woman who’s daughter is studying to be a maritime captain. It’s raining again when we come out – having seen no rain at all for months we are interested to note how quickly we have now become bored of it.
We notice that people in Turkey who don’t speak English are not that open to trying to communicate which, having recently travelled through so many other non-English speaking countries where this has never been a problem, we find odd. The words ‘No speak English’ are generally accompanied by turning away or refusing to make eye contact which makes acting and body language almost redundant. We try and pick up a few words of Turkish but people don’t seem to respond to this either. Even salesmen show a natural reluctance to talk to us – sometimes to the point of losing a sale as a consequence. Every so often – as with the carpets – somebody is summoned to translate and on one occasion a waiter runs down three flights of stairs into the street to find an English speaker when all we’re trying to ask for is another cup of coffee.
Thankfully there are many people who speak perfect English – and a few others who are happy to try – so we’re able to make friends.
There’s a CouchSurfing meeting this evening so we hop across the Bosphorus on a ferry to meet people and check out the town centre. Travelling across the city by boat is a joyful experience and being in the middle of a sizeable body of water really opens up the views.
Taksim, European side
We find Istanbul a wonderfully animated city and Taksim on the European side especially bright and buzzing with the walls and staircases covered in colourful graffiti.
The CouchSurfing night is loads of fun with well over 100 people here from all over the world and it makes our lives easier – well Lucy’s anyway – that the lingua franca is English. When we describe our project everyone is enthusiastic although some have slightly strange questions, for example, asking how we will manage to cross the Istanbul toll bridge when we don’t have a Turkish number plate. Somebody earnestly warns us that it’s extremely dangerous to drive with the steering wheel on the wrong (i.e. right hand) side, dismissing our five months on the road as insufficient evidence of this not being the case. We subsequently discover that she doesn’t have a driving licence.
We meet lots of Syrians, all young men, and hear they are the demographic most at risk in Syria at the moment as they face the danger of being kidnapped – by all sides – to become soldiers. We’re told that families are sending their sons away but generally not their daughters as this is much less of a threat for them.
Lots of chat and a few beers later and we realise it’s 2.30am and we’ve missed the last boat home. A shared minibus taxi takes us most of the way back but we have to get a cab for the last bit. The taxi driver tries to insist on calling our hostel for specific instructions rather than trust our directions but we pretend we’ve forgotten the number. It doesn’t seem fair to phone the proprietor at 3.30am – we feel bad enough knocking on the door. It’s a slightly frustrating end to an otherwise upbeat night.
We explore the Old City which also lies in Europe but on the other side of the Golden Horn. There are more tourists than we’ve seen since Marrakech – five months ago – which is quite a culture shock. We find they walk irritatingly slowly, in direct contrast to the locals who all seem to be going in a specific direction and have no problem pushing in order to get there. There is a long wait to get into the well known sites so, unwilling to queue in the sun for several hours, we miss going into Hagia Sophia or the Blue Mosque.
We walk towards the Grand Bazaar enjoying the architecture and marvelling at the price of the Turkish baths on this side of the Bosphorus – more than 10 times more expensive than our hammam had been. The Grand Bazaar is beautifully housed but, again, demands crazy prices for often fairly generic looking tat that’s the same all over the region and it’s hard to see beyond the myriad explanatory notices. The vendors here are a notable exception to their countrymen in terms of communication – everybody here is more than willing to talk to you and it’s actually quite hard to escape.
It occurs to us that perhaps we are in the wrong frame of mind. This is our last big city before we go home and we’re tired from months on the road. Whilst we can’t fail to be enchanted by Istanbul, it’s possible that we’re a bit less tolerant than we’d otherwise be. Had we done our journey the other way round – if Turkey was the first country we were exploring rather than the last – we would probably have loved everything we have just complained about.
We do discover a plus side to the Grand Bazaar in that almost unlimited free samples of Turkish Delight make a scrumptious breakfast. Two really good lattes later (another undeniable advantage of tourism) and we feel differently about the whole thing – it’s amazing how a good cup of coffee can lift your spirits.
We go for a walk visiting a less popular mosque lined with exquisite tiles. Down by the coast we see men relaxing in various states of undress sunbathing, fishing, cooking over small fires and swimming in the strong current that flows into Mediterranean. There are few women here and the ones we see are all fully clothed. We walk up the west bank of the Golden Horn to Fener, a colourful neighbourhood of old churches and synagogues, passing boats moored along the waterfront before mounting a hill to check out the view from the immense red brick Phanar Greek Orthodox College.
Sertaj and Fatih, Presidential Election
On our last night in Üsküdar there’s a presidential election. Despite marking a significant step towards changing the Turkish constitution – new legislation proposes to empower the presidential role, currently largely symbolic – it’s an event that has mostly passed us by, and only really noticeable today due to an absence of beer being served in restaurants. There are lots of posters about, nearly all of Erdoğan’s face, but this is a wholly different experience to our last presidential election in Egypt when the country had gone mad with election fever.
We meet up with Sertaj from the CouchSurfing evening and his friend Fatih near the Galata Tower north of the Bosphorus. They have just cast their votes: Fatih for Erdoğan on religious grounds and Sertaj against him, referring to him as ‘our little dictator’. Both work as bank auditors, Sertaj in a mainstream bank and Fatih in an Islamic bank where they have to use another term for ‘interest’ – also for religious reasons – although even Fatih admits that the banks operate in exactly the same way.
No one on the European side looks particularly interested as Erdoğan’s victory is announced on the internet but it’s a different story when we get back to Üsküdar: people are celebrating in the street, flags waving and cars sounding their horns – everyone seems over the moon.
Protests and demonstrations
Sertaj tells us an amazing story about friends who decided to paint their local staircase multicoloured. The next day an official body repainted it grey and then the following day people went out all over Istanbul and other Turkish towns painting all public staircases multicoloured.
We also hear about other – more serious – demonstrations.
In the early summer of 2013 environmentalists gathered in Taksim Gezi Park by Taksim Square in response to urban development plans by the government that included building huge shopping malls over the green public spaces in the city. The demonstrators were forcibly evicted by the authorities, an event sparking subsequent strikes and protest in towns all over Turkey, while the original protesters in Taksim Gezi Park returned in increased numbers.
The protests expanded to encompass a broad range of concerns: Prime Minister Erdoğan’s authoritarian behaviour; threats to freedoms of assembly, expression and the press; the war in Syria; the government undermining Turkey’s secularism; recent controversy about kissing in public and the ban of alcohol on university campuses.
There was no clear central leadership and the demonstrations attracted people from all walks of life: women, men and children; old and young; secular and religious; left and right wing activists and people with no political affiliation at all. The riot police used water cannon and tear gas in a bid to disperse them but everyone worked together, supporting one other against the police with numbers increasing in the evenings as office workers joined in.
Not wanting to undermine the legitimacy of their cause nor ruin the park they were trying to protect, the demonstrators were careful to behave well. Nobody got drunk or dropped litter and everyone rallied round: hotels allowed protesters to use their toilets, local people brought food and drink – as well as swimming goggles and surgical masks for protection against tear gas. Well known entertainers came to perform for the protesters, a yoga teacher gave classes, and a library, movie screen and medical centre were set up.
Erdoğan and the Turkish media played down the significance of what was going on – the Prime Minister famously referring to the protesters as ‘çapulcu’ (looters), a badge that they subsequently adopted with pride. Information was primarily disseminated via social media with the word ‘çapulcu’ being used by the demonstrators in order to get people engaged. Many people updated their Twitter tags to include this title.
Graffiti played a large part in the protests with good humoured slogans appearing such as ‘I ♥ tear gas’; ‘Enough! I’m calling the police’; and ‘Everyday I’m çapuling’.
In the end the protesters won: the parks were saved, but over 8000 people were injured – some critically – and at least nine people died in the process, including a 15 year old boy who spent two months in a coma when a tear gas cannister hit him in the head as he went to buy bread. We were told that at his death he weighed just 18kg.
Sertaj says that he spent all his non working hours at the demonstrations and he – and others we talk to – say that in their experience it was the first time the Turkish people had felt that sort of camaraderie. They all speak of their summer of protest with great affection.
Ortaköy and Ulus
Gulner, mother of Anne-Laure’s London friend Serra, has offered us her apartment while she’s away – an act of incredible generosity and trust, especially as we’ve never met her before – so we decide to move over to the European side for our final few days in Istanbul.
So – disturbing a cat sleeping on the spare wheel – we collect Landy from the Otopark and cross over the mighty Bosphorus Bridge from Asia to Europe (which – despite the concerns of our friend from the other night – we manage without incident and without having to pay the toll). We drive up a steep hill to the flat in Ulus, grateful for Landy’s low ratio gearbox and pleased to note that for future comings and goings on foot there is a bus from Ortaköy, the boat-station at the bottom of the hill that has a quirky villagey atmosphere and a great selection of restaurants.
It’s lovely to be in a house again and we enjoy home brewed coffee with hot milk and put on a load of washing which feels like utter luxury. We spend the rest of the morning attempting to befriend our new flatmate, a belligerent cat called Husman, and fixing Landy’s headlights that have gone on strike.
We come to the conclusion that we should get Landy graffitied, partly because we’re keen to look less military but also in keeping with what we’ve seen of Turkey. But we’re leaving Istanbul in four days which doesn’t give us long to make the relevant contacts and complete the work and we don’t really know where to start.
Networking has never been our strong point – it was by far the least enjoyable aspect of planning our journey – but meeting and staying in the homes of so many positive people along our route has forced us to confront our inhibitions and by Istanbul we’ve learnt to let go of these fears. Having decided to graffiti Landy we spend the rest of our time shamelessly asking everyone we meet how we can go about this, starting with the two artists who run the bar we’re sitting in.
After a couple of phone calls they tell us it’s possible but will cost TL1500 – nearly £375 – and we’d have to buy a compressor as well. Knowing this is way out of our price bracket – and not wanting our own compressor – we put a shout out for an Istanbul-based graffiti artist on Facebook and hope for a positive response.
Serhat, a friend of Serra’s, replies and we arrange to meet him and his friend Delaria in Nişantaşi, where we chat over iced chai lattes. Serhat lives in Berlin where he works as an interior designer. Delaria runs her own advertising agency in Istanbul.
They’re really good fun, but the best news of all is that they’re also friends with somebody called Natasha who is an artists’ agent with several Istanbul graffiti artists on her books. They tell us about a guy called Leo, one of the best known of these artists, whose signature panda we’ve already seen on more than one wall in Taksim. We hear that Leo is well paid for his work and it’s clear that in Istanbul graffiti has ‘graduated’ from being considered vandalism to being thought of as art.
Delaria leaves the three of us to wander in the direction of Taksim exploring funky bars, cafés and restaurants. We try locally brewed beer and unfamiliar Turkish food that we discover we love: meat and spinach ravioli in a yoghurt sauce, spicy lamb on a bed of aubergine. Less popular is a weird spicy vegetable drink that tastes healthy but horrible.
Serhat tells us that he was heavily involved in the Taksim Square protests and that he and some others had just spent the previous day going around polling stations monitoring the presidential election, an initiative set up by Delaria.
We also hear about military service in Turkey, which only applies to men. If they live in Turkey they are obliged to complete five months’ service – or just four weeks if they are studying abroad.
It’s another late night so we take a cab home dropping off Serhat en route.
In the morning he texts us so say that he’s got us onto the guest list for the private view of a graffiti exhibition that evening. We’re really excited: this is our chance to meet a graffiti artist – and hopefully get them interested in painting Landy.
The exhibition makes us think about the immediacy of graffiti over more traditional paintings. An artist who paints on canvas can carry their work with them – or send it – and curators can pick and choose what they want from the artist’s portfolio. A graffiti artist almost always has to come to the exhibition space beforehand and create their work on the spot. Another artist could take months to finish a painting – the graffiti artist doesn’t have that luxury, and it’s also quite a leap of faith for the curator.
We meet some incredible people, including a graffiti artist who expresses an interest in our Land Rover, but the following morning he emails to say that it’s bad for his reputation to give his work away too cheaply – and our minimal budget comes nowhere near his price.
But then Natasha calls with the fantastic news that Leo is happy to meet and discuss the possibility of doing some work on Landy. He brings his Moldovan friend Alexandra, a 21 year old model in long socks and hot-pants, to translate. We’re under the impression that this is just a preliminary discussion but Leo falls in love with our gorgeous car and in no time at all gets out his spray cans and goes to work.
He tells us he’s been a graffiti artist since 2000 – about half his lifetime – and he’s clearly successful. He doesn’t even suggest we pay him for materials, let alone for his time or work. His real name is Ibrahim but he uses ‘Leo Lunatic’ professionally as ‘Ibrahim is not very street’.
We end up with his trademark panda on our car – it looks awesome and we’re absolutely thrilled. Despite his achievements in Istanbul we discover that when we leave Turkey in a couple of days Landy will be Leo’s only piece of international art. We celebrate with beer and an iced tea for Leo who’s teetotal.
An advantage of graffiti is that if Leo doesn’t like the line he has drawn he can respray over it immediately regardless of the colours used or whether it’s still wet. Anne-Laure shows him her book of drawings – where working in permanent ink she has nothing to hide behind – and he nods his approval ‘One line? Wow…respect’ he says, bowing slightly and bringing his hands together in front of him.
It’s time to get moving so we pack up and leave our lovely apartment – Husman seems pleased to see the back of us. We leave Istanbul in gruelling traffic and are constantly cut up by innumerable aggressive trucks. We’re concentrating so hard on not being run off the road that we never have the chance to use our loud Egyptian horn in retaliation.
The traffic clears as the day progresses and we’re able to speed up. Lucy – the driver at this point – notices with interest that when the accelerator pedal is jammed hard into the cork foot well we move fractionally faster. This gives us the inspired idea of removing a piece of the floor to allow us to depress it a bit further.
Keşan, 35km from Greek border, is our last stop before our long drive home and we find a pension without difficulty. The family who run it are friendly and welcoming and insist on escorting us in person to a restaurant when we ask where we can get some supper. We have a fabulous final lamb dinner and head to bed early for once, wanting to get some sleep before our journey, but a disco and the call to prayer compete for attention outside our bedroom window so we’re out of luck.
The next day we refuel, check our tyre pressures, experimentally cut out the two layers of cork flooring beneath the accelerator pedal, stock up on food and water, and head off. We’re particularly pleased to note that the hole in the floor is speeding up our progress by a good 10km/h and in less than an hour we’ve crossed the border into Greece.
We found life in Turkey to be varied, vibrant and fun.
From the audacious truck drivers and the general good-natured shoving in the streets to the politics and demonstrations, we found that people don’t always agree but they do seem to know what they want.
The ever-evolving graffiti seems intertwined with the emerging culture of protest – harnessing art and humour to express serious political and social concerns.
Before leaving England we’d been looking forward to travelling through Eastern Turkey, exploring Trabzon and the Black Sea region, and seeing the rock formations of Cappadocia…but by the time we got there reality had hit. Turkey is a vast country and we knew we’d only see a fraction of it. Along the way, the trip had taught us that it takes at least a week to get under the skin of a town but two weeks barely scratches the surface of a country. Trying to cover more ground would make our interactions superficial and we would be exhausted. We’d grudgingly learnt to accept that we couldn’t do everything.
Our journey to this point – and Turkey as much as anywhere – had been an extraordinary experience but we had pushed ourselves to our limits. We were almost out of money, almost out of energy, and almost entirely out of brakes. Fuelled only by coffee, Turkish Delight and adrenaline, we realised that the time had come to drive our Landy home.
So that’s exactly what we did.
The 4000km we’d been so anxious about ended up taking just 94 hours to drive and we barely stopped for anything but diesel and coffee. We roared along the highways of Europe, touching the brake pedal only after dark to notify the fast-approaching trucks of our presence. Our brake master cylinder wasn’t fully fixed until the day of our MOT back in England but this wasn’t an issue.
Having a beautiful car had not only inspired Leo, it made our journey through the border crossings of Europe almost effortless: the officials who stopped us immediately bonded with Landy and waved us through their checkpoints without delay.
It turned out that graffiti was actually more useful than brakes.