Incredible !ndia

Incredible !ndia is the slogan you read and see everywhere – the slogan of the government’s official tourist office. And indeed, India is incredible. For many reasons: its 1.1 billion population, its more than 20 different languages, its extreme contrasts, its Bollywood movies, its beautiful and colorful sarees, its traffic, its smog in Delhi, its dirt, its amazing food, its never ending advertising on TV, its tuk tuks, its ‘no privacy’ policy…. This list is certainly not comprehensive and refers to our little experiences in Delhi and we may add to it by the end of our India trip once we’ve seen more of Incredible !ndia.

Luckily we arrived very early on Sunday morning in Delhi with not many people at the airport and on the streets. Our bikes arrived undamaged thanks to Johan’s great packaging skills and within an hour we found a taxi driver who was willing to drive us to our guesthouse in the north of Delhi – one bike on top of the taxi, one inside together with the rest of our luggage, Johan next to the taxi driver and I squeezed in between the luggage in the back.

Not realizing how big Delhi really is – another 15 billion people metropolis – the ride took more than an hour even though there was hardly any traffic. The only ‘highlight’ of this journey was when the taxi driver suddenly cleared his throat very noisily, wound down the window and spit out whatever he found in his throat. He repeated this procedure approximately every 10 minutes. After more than a week in India we still cannot get used to the spitting and related noises, very, very strange.

Our first guesthouse was cheap (700 Rs or 10 EUR per night), with nice and friendly staff, relatively clean and basic with a very nice restaurant where we had our first Indian meals – delicious. It would have been a great choice if we would not have had to spend most of our time in the south of Delhi at doctors, embassies etc.

Our new neighborhood – the Tibetan quarter

Our guesthouse

Our main means of transportation is the rickshaw or tuk tuk as they call it here. And we soon find our favorite driver who we call whenever we need a ride. His English is quite good and he keeps asking us tons of questions such as ‘Do you also have bridges in your country? Do you also have tuk tuks? Can I come and work as a tuk tuk driver in the Netherlands? How much is the fine for crossing a red traffic light? Do you also eat chapatti? Do you have children?‘ He also told us that he has two Misses: his rickshaw and his wife, who is preparing all his meals for him, but mainly chapatti. One morning we asked him to pick us up at 9.45 am and we explained many times in many ways because he didn’t seem to understand (I guess ‘a quarter to ten’ isn’t what Indians would say) but somehow he misunderstood and already arrived at 8.30h. When we finally showed up more than an hour later he was still waiting for us and so happy that he couldn’t stop laughing and smiling. We just couldn’t believe his endurance!

Tuk tuks in the background

By now we are by the way married with two children (twins, a boy and a girl), studying at the Amsterdam university. We added the kids, because our taxi driver who brought us to the airport in Istanbul couldn’t stop laughing when we told him that we didn’t have children and Johan thought it might be wise to just add two of them. We need to adapt!

We are also slowly getting used to the Indian English. A lot of Indians tend to talk extremely fast, their intonation is very different and they often use other words or expressions than those we are used to. And they use abbreviations for everything:

Taxi driver: “You want Azee?”

Johan: “What?”

Taxi driver: “Azee, Azee!”

Johan looked at me with question marks in his eyes, I shrugged and finally the driver pointed to the switch on his dashboard, so we got it, he meant A/C.

Johan: “Yes, a bit, please.”

Taxi driver: “What?”

Johan: “Just a bit would be great, thank you.”

Taxi driver: “What?”

Johan: “Well, half A/C, if possible.”

Taxi driver: “Ah, half Azee, OK, OK, half Azee!”

So far so good, we’ll have many more interesting, thought-provoking and funny stories of Incredible !ndia for you in the pipeline.

 

Advertisements

Historic Istanbul

As promised here is our final Istanbul summary including information of the most important sites we visited. Main sources are Rick Steves’ Istanbul travel guide and Wikitravel. For those who know Istanbul and those who are not really interested in a rather informative article, just skip this one, a personal update is in the pipeline as well.

Blue Mosque

Its official name is Sultan Ahmed Mosque, named for its patron, but the blue tiles interior gave it the nickname Blue Mosque. The mosque was built in the early 17th century as an answer to Hagia Sofia and is one of the finest in the world. Its six minarets rival the mosque in Mecca and beautiful tiles with floral motifs fill the interior. Stunning! It is wonderful to just sit on the floor and enjoy the beauty of this building, watch worshippers praying and just forget that you are just one of another thousand tourists being in this mosque right now.

 

Hagia Sophia

Originally built by the Greeks as a church it was later turned into a mosque. The Turkish name is Aya Sofia. It has been built between A.D. 532 and 537 and for 900 years it served as the seat of the Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople, the ‘eastern Vatican’. When the Ottomans took Constantinople in 1453, Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror, impressed with the Great Church’s beauty, converted it into an imperial mosque. In the 1930s Hagia Sophia was again converted – this time into a museum. It retains unique elements of both the Byzantine and Ottoman empires and their respective religions, Orthodox Christianity and Islam.

Hagia Sofia is not only famous for its beauty but also for its huge dome: Paris’ Notre Dame fits in it and the Statue of Liberty could perform jumping jacks! Actually you cannot describe its grandeur, you have to see and feel it. It is one of the most impressing buildings we have ever seen, especially knowing when this was built. Even the architect had his doubts about the stability of the dome and only ten years after it has been finalized it partially collapsed and more arches had to be added.

Topkapi Palace

This palace was the primary residence of the Ottoman Sultans for about 400 years. As well as a royal residence, the palace was a setting for state occasions and royal entertainments. It is now a major tourist attraction and contains important holy relics of the Muslim world, including Muhammed’s cloak and sword. The Topkapi Palace became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985. It is really nice, but even though we went there really early, there were far too many tourists. And on top the kitchen area was closed for renovation works. A big disappointment for us! We visited the Harem including the main private areas of the Sultan, his wives, his favorites and his mother. And just in case you didn’t know, even though the Sultan was allowed to have four wives, they very seldom made use of it. Some women played very important roles in politics in Ottoman history and it was even said that the empire was ruled from harem. A harem is a place forbidden for men and protected by Eunuchs – and not a place where wild orgies took place – and where the women of the palace lived together with their children. Boys got educated in the Harem as well until the age of 16.

Basilica Cistern

Or the place where parts of Bond’s movie “From Russia with Love” was filmed (and by the way the latest Bond movie was also filmed in Istanbul). It was built in the 6th century and is as big as two soccer fields. The ceiling is supported by a forest of 336 marble columns, each 9 meters high. The majority of the columns in the cistern appear to have been recycled from the ruins of older buildings, likely brought to Constantinople from various parts of the empire, together with those that were used in the construction of Hagia Sophia. The cistern has the capacity to store 100,000 tons of water, despite being virtually empty today with only a few feet of water lining the bottom.

The bases of two columns reuse blocks carved with the visage of Medusa. The origin of the two heads is unknown, though it is thought that the heads were brought to the cistern after being removed from a building of the late Roman period. There is no written evidence that suggests they were used as column pedestals previously. Tradition has it that the blocks are oriented sideways and inverted in order to negate the power of the Gorgons‘ (a terrifying female creature) gaze, however it is widely thought that one was placed sideways only to be the proper size to support the column.

Grand Bazaar

And this is a place where you can get almost everything and mainly carpets, fabrics, typical Turkish souvenirs, water pipes, jeans, leather products, gold, books….. And even when we told the salespeople that we cannot buy anything since we are cycling they still somehow managed to drag us into their shops and come up with ideas how to get their nice products to our homes!

 

 

Close by the Bazaar is the Spice Market where you can buy Turkish Delight in a million variations, spices (oh really?) in wonderful colors that make great pictures and little eateries sell their kebabs, köftes and other delicious food. Luckily the Turkish desserts are far too sweet for me so I can easily resist :-).

 

And that’s it for Turkey. Unfortunately we didn’t cycle as much as we would have liked in this country but enjoyed every bit of what we’ve seen. We’ve been very lucky with the weather, having been able to still wear our summer clothes and having had rain only in Istanbul and only in the evenings. All in all, another great cycling country with great people added to our list!

 

 

Buzzing Istanbul

It has been an exciting experience being in Istanbul, after having avoided cities for the last two months and also, because we didn’t have to leave after two days again (even though we still moved twice, but that’s a different story). Very relaxing despite all the new impressions and tons of things to see and do in this historic place, formerly called Constantinople.

Istanbul has more than 15 million inhabitants and sprawls over an enormous area on both banks of the Bosphorus Strait. We managed to see the most important sites in Istanbul’s old town such as the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sofia, Small Hagia Sofia, Old Bazaar, Spice Market and Topkapi Palace, crossed the Galata bridge to explore the New District but unfortunately did not make it to the Asian part.

We’ve had wonderful experiences with the locals in Istanbul, they are very hospitable and don’t hesitate to help out, be it the hotel manager or all the others we met. Our hotel manager we called in the end ‘Johan’s PA’ (personal assistant), because he gave us so much valuable advice on so many occasions and always tried to find the best solution for our problem of which we had a few. We enjoyed strolling around in our quarter and discovering all the specialist streets and shops. You won’t believe it, but there are streets only selling chains or buttons or tape or plastic bags or boxes or wedding cards (there are no other greeting cards, only for weddings!), and then there are various shops next to each other selling exactly the same things (seriously!). That’s fantastic to explore and we still wonder how you can make a living from such a specialized business.

And then you see all the salesmen with little two or four-wheel carts selling food: fish, bread, sweets, roasted chestnuts, freshly squeezed orange or pomegranate juices, peeled and spiraled apples – we’ve never seen this before, they have a little machine peeling and slicing the apples at the same time and the result is an apple in spirals – it was so much fun looking at it that we couldn’t resist buying a deliciously tasting apple.

The second morning in Istanbul we woke up and Johan told me that it has rained in his face last night. First I thought he is joking, but he was dead serious. We’ve had thunder storms that night and somehow there was a leakage. Johan told me he first dreamed about water dripping into his face, but then he woke up and realized there IS water dripping into his face. What was most hilarious about this was that he started cleaning up the mess and even moved the bed without me noticing a thing!

For coffee lovers, and especially for those who love Turkish coffee, here’s a little secret about it: if a man proposes, he has  to arrange a meeting between his and the woman’s/girl’s families at the girl’s house to come to an agreement. This is also the case for arranged marriages. The tradition asks that after the introductory talks the daughter has to prepare Turkish coffee. If she doesn’t want to marry, she will prepare the coffee for the boy’s family with salt and in most of the cases, the families will not agree! A nice way to say ‘No’!

As we had to pack our bikes for the flight, we also had to find good packaging material. Our first idea was to go to a bike shop and use real bike boxes, but we couldn’t find any of the shops and Johan decided to just ask in other shops if they had any boxes for us. The first huge and good quality box we got at a UPS store, a used box from one of their customers. A few hundred meters further Johan went into another shop and returns two minutes later with six men – I am not exaggerating. They all inspected our bikes and had funny ideas (such as packing both bikes together in just one box) and in the end decided to escort us to another shop selling packaging materials. We got a few more boxes, but still not enough and continued our search the next day. This time we found a carpet shop that just got a delivery of tapestry which were packed in huge boxes. Johan convinced the shop owner to give us three more boxes – at a length of 2 meters! We then headed off carrying these boxes through busy Istanbul and the most popular sites, drawing a lot of attention on us once again. And here goes another thank you to our wonderful hotel manager: he stored everything behind the door (it is a really tiny hotel and our room is so small, that nothing else would fit in there) and while I was typing this, the lobby was decorated with huge cardboard boxes, bubble wrap and other packaging material, Johan started packing on the terrace in the back of the hotel.

And I also shouldn’t forget to mention Johan’s great negotiation skills. Turkey is a country where you hardly anywhere pay the price they ask for (except maybe in supermarkets and museums). You always have to bargain: in bars to get the beer a few lira cheaper, in restaurants (we once got a 30% discount plus water, tea and dessert for free), in hotels and of course in shops! This is not really my cup of tea, but Johan really loves it!

Johan finally went to the hairdresser for the first time after almost four months to get rid of his hippie look and got a ‘super haircut’ (language of his hairdresser), he finally doesn’t need his headband anymore :-). He also got his ear hair burned away, a face, arm and neck massage, all from the master hairdresser who’s been in the family business for more than 50 years. Great experience!

We also met the British cyclists again. If you’re interested in what they are up to, here is their blog: http://north2northcycletour.wordpress.com. It’s been nice to exchange experiences, tips and other secrets and to get to understand how others are traveling and what challenges they are facing.

There is so much more we experienced and I could continue writing for the next hours or so, but also don’t want to bore you too much with our affairs. We would also like to thank Can and Caroline for their super support with getting a FedEx package cleared and delivered on time! You both saved our India trip and we for sure owe you something!

For those who are more interested in cultural and historic information on the sites we’ve visited in Istanbul, watch out for our next post.

Arrived!

28 October, 2012 – We still had about 80km to cycle into Istanbul since we lost a half day the day before due to the mud. We were sitting on our bikes by 7am (thanks to the time change) and continued our up and downhill ride including another challenge: cross and headwinds, or should I better write storms? The wind was so heavy at times, that I couldn’t hold my bike anymore and had to step off it. And we rode downhill in our lowest gear and pedaled to keep going! Thankfully we didn’t only head against the wind, a few times the wind helped us climbing hills.

Getting into Istanbul by bike was easier than expected. I read a lot from other cyclists and was a bit afraid of too much traffic and only busy roads. But we found a great way to get into town, which was busy as well and certainly not the nicest to cycle, since at the beginning (still 20km before Istanbul) we shared the 6-lane highway into Istanbul with loads of cars and small trucks, but there was a wide hard shoulder, which made it a safe ride for us. There was just one tricky situation, when the road split and we had to turn left because we didn’t want to end up on the motorway. The cars were too fast to just cross the road and we already thought we had to go back all the way. But then a taxi driver stopped just behind us and made all following cars stop so we could quickly cross the road. By the time we headed off this poor taxi driver was involved in a fight with another driver and we cycled away in a nice chorus of honks.

Cycling into Istanbul was a very cool experience. As Istanbul is our final European destination, it had to be special anyway, but we will never forget this great feeling riding through the busy outskirts of Istanbul, the roads jammed with buses, cars, trams and people and we on our bikes in the midst of it. To get into the center took us another two hours, given the size of this city and us not knowing where to go exactly. We once again used our compasses to be able to head into the right direction.

In total it took us 7.5 weeks to get to Istanbul. We cycled through eleven countries and a total of more than 3,200km. We are still a bit frustrated that we haven’t been able to cycle all the way to Istanbul and instead took a train and a bus through most of Bulgaria, but that’s how it is. Istanbul is an exciting place to be and there is so much to see, that we are now happy to have a few more days to explore before the next chapter of our adventure begins.

For those who are interested in more details on our route, we’ve added a country stats page to the blog. Just click the home button and you will see it next to the ‘About’ section. And a reminder for those who would like to see more pictures, they are available on Facebook.