An even 32 hours after leaving our apartment in Tokyo we arrived at our hotel in Istanbul. Although the length seemed daunting, it was actually a relatively easy and comfortable journey. The long hall flight to Abu Dhabi was comfortable, we managed to get some sleep during the 8 hour layover in the UAE and the last leg to turkey arrived in time with our bags on board. So, now back in Europe more than 5 months after leaving we have done almost a full loop of the globe and are on the home strait.
Our convoluted train ride home began in Istanbul where we spent a night. We had over 30 hours in the Turkish capital as our first interrail train was a sleeper leaving at 9.30pm. Fighting off jet lag we had a freshen up in the hotel and headed out to get our bearings. We found a vibrant and cultural city full of character and history. Our hotel was right in the centre of the historic district, Bosphorus, and virtually next door was the Tokapi palace (old home to numerous sultans in its day) and the Gulhane Park – once the palace gardens. The palace is now a museum, but it was just closing up as we got there so we just admired it from the outside.
With it being Ramadan and therefore many in the city fasting until sunset, we were advised to go for dinner before locals come out to break their fast. We headed to a lovely terraced restaurant over looking the narrow streets near our hotel for some tradition Turkish food. It was very welcome after 3 consecutive aeroplane meals, and probably some of the best local food we’ve had on this trip. To finish off the evening and properly immerse ourselves in the culture we shared a shisha pipe, which Suzanne found pleasantly suprising and entertaining while trying to replicate the caterpillar from Alice In Wonderland.
Over night a heavy rainstorm had rolled in (getting closer to Blighty I guess) and so we got a bit wet while running along the straight that separates Europe and Asia. Luckily by the time we came to check out of our hotel the clouds and cleared and we were able to explore the rest of the city in the dry. We started out by exploring the market stalls of the Grand Bizarre and Spice Bizzare. The colours and smells on show were incredible, from buckets of spices to rugs and lamps it was a dazzling display of the local culture. After 90 minutes of dodging and ducking market traders desperately trying to get us to look at their shop we came to the end and headed back towards the old town.
In search of some history we visited the Hagia Sofia. A now museum, but in it’s illustrious past served as both a church and a mosque. Jack of all trades! Because of the way the building had evolved with bits added over time it was slightly odd in its layout but the decorations, both Christian and Islamic were incredible in their detail.
After finishing in the Hagia Sofia (and stopping for a quick tea and shisha break to reenergise) we went to look round the Basilica Cistern, a huge underground water storage room built during the Roman era. Propped up by vertical columns that were perfectly laid out, it was mind blowing to think it was built when it was. It must have been miles ahead of its time.
Our last visit while in Istanbul was the city’s largest mosque – the blue mosque- we saved the best till last really. We had tried to enter a couple of times before and had been turned away as it had been prayer but this time we were permitted, as long as Zan slightly altered her outfit: she had to cover her head and shoulders with a scarf and put a long skirt on over her leggings. Once we finally got inside it was incredible; lots of beautiful decoractions adorning the ceilings, windows and walls added to the vibrant atmosphere given by the shape of the huge domed roofs and colourful carpet. After just taking it all in for a while left, Zan undressed and we put our shoes back on and headed back to collect our bags from our hotel. Have some dinner and make our way to the train station.
We boarded our train just before 10.30pm and it pulled off on time about 10 minutes later. The train is just like all the old European ones I’ve seen in films. Compartments house 4 or 6 seats separated from the passage way by a sliding doors. Suzanne and I were the only ones in our compartment so had the luxury of some privacy and extra space for our bags. Feeling the effects of jet lag we were both pretty tired so were tucked up in our couchettes before the turn of the hour. The rest was short lived though: when we reached the end of the Turkish tracks we were off the train at 2.42, an hour later we had given up our passports to immigration and still didn’t have them back. We had been waiting in line for a good 45 minutes before the boarder control staff even started checking passports. Before that was allowed to happen they had a heated conversation with the train staff about something, not a Scoobie about what. To make things even more stressful when I got to the window they asked for a visa, I didn’t have one for Bulgaria as I sure it was part of the EU; had our free movement suddenly been revoked with no accountable government at home? Turns out they wanted to see my Turkish visa which was back on the train so I had to jog back and get it. We got our passports back 75 minutes after first getting off the train. No idea why, but they kept them all back before giving them out via a name call like the registers we had in primary school. Back into bed finally to try and get some more sleep! At least for almost two hours until we were woken up again, this time by Bulgaria boarder enforcement to check our passports a second time. On the train this time, some bloke came knocking asking for them, we handed them over and he strolled off down the train with them. After half an hour we were starting to worry we might not get them back. But eventually he did come back, called me Thomas Rosisky (Checz and Arsenal footballer) gave us our passports and left us too it.
After fitting in a little more sleep we woke to find the train rolling through some beautiful Bulgarian landscapes. Round steep green hills, past little villages, through pitch black tunnels and calling at tiny little stations with singular guards who looked like they probably lived in the station houses. It took us until 5pm to cross Bulgaria and make it to the Romanian board where we were met with more passport checks. I thought there was supposed to be free movement of people here?! The journey was punctuated by a few stops at some larger stations where carriages and locomotives were swapped with other trains. Eventually we made it to Bucharest, being undisturbed in our room meaning it was just the two of us for the entire 19 hours! We have a 2 hour wait until our second sleeper in a row. This time to Budapest.