Waking up at the Bulgarian beach camp site we became aware that Jack had at least 12 insect bites. We were sure he’d live.
Once you reach the Bulgarian-Turkish border, the speed limit starts to count down; 70, 50, 40, 10, 8. We went through about four Stop signs before we reached what looked like an elaborate petrol station with no barriers or security guards, just a couple of cheery looking strays and a few people wandering around confusedly. The process was fairly long with a lot of gesturing, stamps and queuing but by the end we had insurance and permission to drive through Turkey. At one point we did get a little mixed up. Seeing a sign about meat and dairy we hurriedly and unwillingly consumed most of the over-heated meat and cheese in the two cars. Including two big pieces of brie. Folks – the Turkish don’t hate brie, just take it right in there, no worries! Cheese-smeared and bloated, the customs official simply smiled at the car from a few metres away and gave us a couple more stamps. There was absolutely no reason for Steve to have packed his rectal cavity with our only vacuum sealed cheese.
Jack took the wheel for the first time and we departed from border security, insurance only costs 35 euro for anyone to drive the car. As Steve took the helm on the outskirts of Istanbul (also for the first time) we noticed how perfectly kept the banks by the highway were, with attractive botanic inlays and very healthy grass. In fact, the grass was significantly healthier than the 8-12 year old children who first begged us for change and later helped get us away from traffic lights by running behind the car pushing. We may well have been perfectly fine without their help.
It is also around this point that we notice that Jack’s legs are lumpier than usual. He will probably live.
Ploughing on, Steve helpfully (read: probably accidentally) took us to the airport in search of wifi. Overtaking a queue of enraged taxis that culminated with police (who, by the sounds of their voices on the megaphones, were also less than content) we promptly left and headed “towards the centre” of the 200km wide mega-metropolis.
“Church with a Starbucks in it in Cevahir” came the instruction from our contact in Istanbul. Once you get away from the highways into Istanbul, it quickly looks less like Hyde Park and more like steep cobbled hills packed with every resident of every house and all of their watermelons and some of the cats they let loose once they stopped being kittens, now mangy, followed by those puppies they once had that are now bigger and hungrier and have more obvious ribs, and old men who are so unfazed by death that they will walk headlong in front of a limousine, waving their hands distractedly at you. And mopeds. See also: old women. See also: taxis and their drivers and their drivers’ friends.
Hand-waving and scraps of paper with unpronounceable plane-names got us to Starbucks, A/C and frappuccinos, where Alper, our Istanbul saviour and Brock, his friendly friend, met us and helped us book a hotel for around £10 /person. It was always unlikely that we would find a campsite in amidst the urban sprawl.
Our fixers got in the limo and sherpa’d us through the main streets to our hotel. The one way system is exacerbated by the total lack of lane discipline, the dead-ends that once lived and the requirement to U-turn to correct mistakes. One highlight was having to drive directly through a packed main street that looked shop-for shop, neon snow-flake for superfluous, inexplicable Christmas decoration like Oxford Circus. The received advice is “show [pedestrians] no respect. Use your horn.” This got us to the tiny side lane which had our car park wedged in it. It might once have been a building. Driving past the entrance down a 30 degree decline, Ollie revved the limo backwards into the lot whilst onlookers shouted in Turkish and a Dom flailed his arms just out of sight.
Throughout these meanderings, Jack’s legs continued to swell and change colour. Prognosis: uncertain.
Eventually we found the hotel. It was just 2 minutes from the car park and every room was en suite. All of the door numbers were wrong on the keys, but luckily it turned out that all of the keys worked for all of the rooms.
Once showered we headed out into Istanbul on foot. Have to use those appendages occasionally. Without a stiff breeze rushing in through tinted windows, it was an incredibly warm evening. The kind of heat that makes you want to curl up on the cool stone of shady doorways. That’s where we found Turkey’s fattest dog: lazily wagging its tail at us, it was adorable even in spite of the fact that it could very well have been the subject of a gritty channel 4 documentary. There is some speculation as to whether this dog was already famous for some reason. For sure, it had done significantly better than the majority of Istanbul’s roving canine population.
Alper had booked us a table on the roof top of a traditional Turkish restaurant. Alper then told us what to order, ordered it for us, negotiated when the wrong drinks came and got us the cheque. I think we would still have been aimlessly driving around Istanbul’s polished labyrinth of ring-roads if it wasn’t for Alper.
It was during this meal that we were all reminded of Harry Thompson’s unique ability to ingest. It is the speed that is stunning. Unhooking his jaw and flattening his oesophagus, the adult Harry Thompson can consume up to one and a half king-size meals by simply upending the plates above his face. The application of sleight of hand to the process adds the shock and awe factor. Look once: full kebab + salad bigger than your head. Look twice, a plate that only barely shows any sign of having born food, and Harry casually chewing on a couple of chips from a side plate.
The food was delicious. Spiced meat bathed in tomato-rich, yoghurt-laden sauce with fresh diced veg to follow.
Two more stops on the evening tour. First, to smoke sheesha on a balcony overlooking what looked like an entire district of Istanbul dedicated to smoking sheesha. The air was thick with every flavour of fruit. It was like cocktails for your lungs. Whether you liked it or not. But who wouldn’t like a good, fruity lung cocktail? Alper got us the very best flavours available: Watermelon, Lemon, Orange + mint. Dom was nevertheless adamant that you could obtain a similar effect by filling your mouth with fruit and standing up too quickly. But that doesn’t quite generate the same ambience as sitting back, puffing, with sweet Turkish tea in hand. Lots of people standing up too quickly is just stressful. And trickier to hold onto your tea.
We topped the day off by heading out for a round of beers. I think all of us were surprised that it was 2.30am by the time were ready to leave; the whole area was buzzing. It must have been a combination of Istanbul’s rapturous energy and jet lag that moves forward by an hour every time you’ve caught up with it.