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Friday, July 20, 2012

Belgrade to Istanbul

We made it to Belgrade and spent a few hours sightseeing. The city is really awesome and has a cool vibe to it, with its mixture of Soviet, modern and historical chic. We went up to Kalemegdan Fort for a great view of the city (and a local beer) and spent some time meandering through the Belgrade's bohemian quarter and enjoying the atmosphere. We grabbed a delicious pizza lunch at one of the many outdoor cafes and were then on our way to Sofia.

Pictures below from Belgrade

The drive through Serbia was beautiful. A lot of the landscape was rural farmland, but then the highway wound through mountains with interesting rock formations and tunnels. It really was fun to drive on the windy roads, and the views were spectacular.
Eventually we arrived at the Bulgarian border. The scary-looking border guard on the way out asked us “Droga? Heroïne? Mafia?” and then burst out laughing. Clearly in our Perodua Kenari, the only illicit substance we smuggled through was my mom’s curry powder. He was very friendly and we gave him a postcard of Ottawa that he liked. We waited in line a bit in no-man’s land before we got through the Bulgaria border. The lady border guard was having trouble figuring out what exactly we were driving (they are used to Mafioso Audis and BMW’s). Her reaction to our car was “that is very strange”. Clearly her English was not the best, and what she really meant to say was “AWESOME”.

Driving through Serbia

We were overoptimistic about our chances of actually making it close to Istanbul, we forgot to factor in time at the border and time change along with the slower (but lovely) drive through the mountains of Serbia.

We made it to Sofia then looked around for a place to stay. We followed signs for the red star hostel and arrived in a dark, barred off alleyway.  On the wall was a hand written note, scribbled in red ink, “dear guest, please go here...” with an address.  We cautiously went to the address, where a giant non-descript wooden door waited for us.  We rung the bell and an old woman answered in a Bulgarian accent to come up.  We walked in, everything was dark.  The lights turned on with the familiar buzz or fluorescents, filling the halls with a cold, eerie light.  We walked up a few flights of stairs, seeing differently barred doors, storage gates and crumbling bricks wondering what we had got ourselves into.  We finally arrived to the 8th floor, where we once again had to get buzzed in.   All discomfort disappeared as we walked into a lovely little hostel, well decorated, where we got a private room.  We then walked downtown on the Pedestrian street (they close the tram line and their public transit becomes a Pedestrian bar street after business hours, which is an awesome concept) in time to grab a bite to eat and enjoy the outdoor pedestrian street full of bars and restaurants that were full even on a Wednesday night!  The bar across the street from where we ate was a Fetish night club with silhouettes of naked women and red lights.  (S - Aruna didn’t want to check it out...)

On Thursday morning we set out for Istanbul. The drive through Bulgaria and Turkey was pretty, but uneventful. Lots of sunflower fields! Sebastien and I started to listen to our first audiobook, which made the time fly by.

At the Turkish border, we had to do a little running around (I literally ran between the border guard and the cashier to get our visas) and we had to buy insurance at a separate building.  They eventually they let us into Turkey, and that border guard got a postcard too.

We were hoping to get to Istanbul in time to process our Turkmenistan visas so we went straight to the Turkmen Consulate, only to find out it was closed! Apparently, we had to get there between 9:30-12:30. It’s annoying because we have an invitation letter that says we can get a transit visa on arrival at the Turkmen border after we take the ferry across the Caspian Sea from Baku. BUT the Azeri embassy unilaterally decided to change their visa policy and request that people have their Turkmen visas in their passports before getting on the ferry. This change meant we had less flexibility, and also that we had to take time out of our stay in Istanbul to deal with visa issues.

Foiled by the Turkmen embassy, we headed to our hotel. Our awesome friend Paul (we stayed with Paul and Emily in Antwerp) travels a lot with his job and has racked up a bunch of reward points. He was nice enough to offer to book us a hotel stay during our trip and booked us 2 nights at the Holiday Inn in Istanbul.  The only thing we had to do was find it.

Driving in Istanbul is an adventure. Googlemaps does not help. Most of the street signs don’t match Googlemap directions, or there are no signs. Our map of Istanbul wasn’t big enough to include the area where the Turkmen Consulate was and our hotel so we had to do some guessing. Apparently, we are not very good at guessing when we don’t know where we are going.

We learned that one wrong turn or missed exit will send you over bridges and around in circles. Traffic on the main highway is intense. Lanes are a suggestion. Cars in front of you will reverse (one nearly hit us!) if they miss their exit. If there is an ambulance trying to get through, people will move out of the way for the ambulance and then fight to chase the ambulance, hoping to get to their destination more quickly. On the upside, people are nice and friendly when you ask for directions. Although they all usually tell you to go straight for a bit and turn right, no matter what you ask them.

All this to say, it took us 2 hours to finally find our hotel – which should have been maybe a 25 minute drive from where we started. We were very happy when we got to the hotel and could park our little Perodua.

The hotel is great. We lounged by the pool and enjoyed the sweet suite (thanks Paul!!!!  There’s a freakin’ soaker tub next to the bed! – S) after our intense day of driving.

Today we headed back to the Turkmenistan Consulate to apply for our visas. We got there at 10am and had to fill out some forms after some intense explanation to the one consular officer that spoke English.  Sebastien had to run to the bank to do a money transfer (and after running two km’s following the classic Turkish “my friend, go straight then turn” directions, I hopped in a cab and tried to explain to my unilingual Turkish cab driver what I was up to.  Much gesticulating and yelling later, we found the bank - S) and we went back this afternoon to pick up our visas.  

We were lucky, we ran into another Rally team and one of their team members’ invitation letter had his passport number wrong by one number and the Turkmen Consulate wouldn’t process his visa. The Turkmen Consulate also told the team that either way the visas wouldn’t be ready until Monday. So, although we had to make a few trips (we managed not to get lost the last 2 times!!) we were happy that at the end of the day we managed to get our visas and do some sightseeing in-between, mainly when I dragged Sebastien to one of my favourite places – the bazaar!

In other news, we’ve driven about 2,500 miles already!

 Grand Bazaar!

Happy with our Turkmen visas!

Off to hang out some more in Istanbul and head to Pamukkale tomorrow.

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