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Author: Maria Zehentner / Translation: Elke Weninger
Beitrag vom: 16.04.2017

Hozgeldiniz – a warm welcome – as the Turkish tend to say! And this is exactly how we felt.

Turkey, March 2017

We crossed the border to Turkey at the checkpoint in Kapisi. While Leander went into the office with all the necessary documents and papers, Lennox and I were watching a female officer and her drug dog checking the cars waiting there. Checking our papers passed quickly and without any problems and after just an hour we were allowed to enter this country.

Each country brought along new expectations, ideas and wishes. But - well – up to then we had been travelling in Europe, an area in which lots of aspects are familiar to us. Entering Turkey meant entering Asian grounds with Akela. Foreign religions, oriental customs, unusual codes of conduct for us – a lot of new issues would be expecting us and we were keen to find out about them. However, before we could join the fray immediately, we had to cover the distance of nearly 220 km between the border and Istanbul, where we had planned our first stop. 

The sun was approaching the horizon already when we reached the outskirts of Istanbul. None of us wanted to search for a place to stay for the night in this metropolis after driving six hours. Therefore, we simply stayed at a chargeable car park which we had found by chance. We only caught a few hours' sleep as we had set the alarm clock early hoping to escape too much traffic in the morning rush hour by starting off early. We were aiming at a centrally located pitch in Istanbul Old Town which we had found doing online research. Sights and the embassies to obtain the required visa we wanted to be in walking distance and unluckily it took us two solid hours for the only 38 km between the old and the new pitch. It was simply a nightmare! At times six or more roads were crossing each other at one crossroad, our navigation system went crazy and our nerves were on edge. Deeply exhausted and a bit irritated did we finally reach the plot on which Akela seemed to be the only vehicle. 

Istanbul, formerly known as Constantinople, counts with 15 mio inhabitants to the most densely populated cities and is the center of culture, trade, finance and media. The city is located in the west of the country and encloses the Bosporus. The Golden Horn, a bay facing west, divides the European part of the city into a western and a southern part. On this southern part of the city is the historical part of the city and also our pitch. The enormous immigration throughout the past years has led to the construction of illegal settlements (Gecekondus) in the peripheral areas of the city. Just under one quarter of the inhabitants of Instanbul live in such settlements, more than 50% of them are unemployed or work without any insurance. Marginalised sections of the population and the lack of governmental organisations characterise these areas. The urban district of Fatih, where we stayed, was one of the biggest Gecekondus in Istanbul.

After a short break we were walking towards the city center. Even though it was the weekend, everything appeared lively and swarmed. Each and everyone tried to offer his goods to strollers. In one street we found only traders of sweets, in the other one there were traders of spices, in yet another one there were offered clothes, shoes, cosmetical goods and food. Everything one needs seemed to be offered. Various smells and an incredible level of noise resulted in a kind of perceptual overload in our minds, not to forget the numerous mosques from which muezzins were calling believers to come and pray. 

Each inhabitant of Istanbul appeared to be walking around – the grounds around the Hagia Sophia and the blue mosque were crowded. We found a bench to indulge in corncobs, chestnuts and kebap, which are offered everywhere. After visiting the blue mosque and getting a free sample of the Islamic Quran, we started setting off towards Akela. We could cancel dinner as our tummies were filled with the lovely food we had bought in the streets.

The next day started with bureaucracy. Various visa had to be organised for our world trip, at first the one for Iran. To get a visa for the Iran you require an agency of group A, which has the entitlement to issue an invitation for tourists.This invitation is then checked for accuracy by the ministry of tourism and finally approved of. If the invitation is approved of the authorities grant a reference number which is then passed on to the embassy. As soon as the embassy has received this very number it can issue a visa. The working speed of the officials is directly related to the amount of money you are willing to pay or how urgent you want the visa. Normal processing time is 3-4 days at a cost of €50/person, extra charge for express service with the visa being issued on the same day is €75/person. At exactly 8:30 in the morning did we start our phone marathon. I did not get anybody on the phone in the embassy in Istanbul who was able to speak English even though I had been trying 20 times. This is why I tried my luck in Ankara. After 3 to 4 attempts I was finally speaking to somebody who was able to help me with useful information. He gave me the phone number of a travel agency in Ankara which was entitled to issues such tourist invitations. Confidently I called the number and within a short time had explained my requests. The employee promised to send an email which listed all of the necessary steps to apply for such a reference number.

We received the wanted information the next day and immediately filled out the necessary application form and mailed it back to Ulubay Travel. To be on the safe side we called as well just to be told that everything was fine but the single aspect of having to pay $30 for each application in advance. As we didn't have a choice but had to trust this female voice on the phone, its owner's name is by the way Ebrim, we quickly ran to the bank to transfer the requested money. We mailed the payment confirmation to the travel agency and again asked for confirmation of its receipt via phone. Ebrim assured that everything would be okay. She was confident and raised hopes in us that the desired reference number might already be available the very next day. Full of anticipation did we spend the next day with waiting, yet the yearned phone call of the travely agency never came. This is why I called the travel agency to get in touch with Ebrim, but I was not successful. I should call again the next day, I was told. Being put off for the next day did not help at all. I wanted to try my luck again the next day at exactly 9:00 am. Unluckily Ebrim was still not available to answer my phonecall. Another employee, Aydan, explained to me that our reference number would already be available yet, according to the new law, it was not allowed to be sent to the applicant anymore. We were a bit puzzled as Ebrim's mail had said that we would receive the reference number right after having been issued. Not even the embassy in Ankara had any information about this new law! Had we been tricked? The account we had transferred the money to might also be a fake account of a non-existant company. We called the Iranian embassy various times, yet our names were still not listed. Day by day was passing by, spent by making phone calls, being put off for yet another day and killing time impatiently. Lennox was really bored – what did he care about visa applications? It was understandably enough dead boring for him. To cheer him up a bit we decided to visit Sea Life Aquarium in Istanbul. We took the metro as we didn't want to go there by truck. Once we had got a hang of the system we found the metro a very cheap and fast option to get from A to B in Istanbul. Should the metro be used more than once or twice it's a good idea to obtain the Istanbul Card. This plastic card can be bought at each metro stop for 6 Turkish Lira (about 4 Turkish Lira correspond to one €) at ticket vending machines. Using 10 Lira notes make it possible to charge this plastic card and a single trip then only costs 2,30 Lira in comparison to usually 4 Lira. The Aquarium is located in a shopping center right next to a metro stop. The underwater zoo turned out to be quite a contrast to the busy and buzzling life in the city and was like a relaxing oasis for us. Time passed quickly and in no time many hours had gone by. We were strolling through the shopping mall for a while and ate some Kebap before getting onto the underground again to go back to Akela. 

The consequent mornings of the next days were spent with similar activities. Making phone calls, calling somebody and making phone calls yet again. However, the disappointing result was no reference number and hence no visa and this wore us down. 

Whoever makes a city trip to Istanbul should in any event go to the Big Bazar. On an area of more than 31.000 m² it houses around 4000 shops offering various goods. Easily recognised as tourists, we were invited to have some chai or look at daily offers at the shops. Most of the time we put down those invitations and walked on smiling. Poor Lennox, standing out of the crowd with his blond hair, had to bear it that many people, especially men, wanted to touch his head as apparently this would bring good luck to them. Others just wanted to pinch his cheek or hug and kiss him. We tried to shield him off as much as possible but unluckily this didn't always work out the intended way and so Lennox stopped leaving Akela without wearing any hood or hat. 

However, if you are looking for bargains you won't be successful at the bazar but should rather try your luck outside of these indoor halls where prices are lower and, furthermore, can be negotiated more easily.

After six days spent with fears and worries we finally received the mail with our Visa Grant Notice. Happily and believing that now we would basically get our visa without any problems, we packed up our gear and started driving towards Ankara, the capital of Turkey, where we wanted to pick up our visa from the embassy. 

At 4:00 am the alarm clock went off. Leander and I started the trip of more than 560 km at day break without waking Lennox, who was still fast asleep in his bed. Akela, which had gone through all the struggles and up to that point of time and a distance of 5.000 km without any problems also managed this distance without causing any complaints. Half way on our trip we stopped at a motorway service when suddenly a Turkish lorry braked hard next to us. The driver jumped out of his driving cabin and quickly rushed towards us. Speaking German with hardly any accent he offered his help should we ever find ourselves in problems and passed his mobile phone number to us. The time of the phone call would not matter, he said, and after some small talk, Haluc was gone as quickly as he had shown up before. We were left there with a puzzled face but laughed at each other happily. Late at night we arrived at a campground which was located about 20 km from the city center. Charging €20 for one night wasn't cheap but we had free access to the internet, showers and washing machines, which made up for that price. Extras which we could very well do with by then! Unluckily the pitch turned out to be a flop, which made us demand a refund of the money and made us leave quickly. It was Sunday morning and one day too early to go to the embassy. As our fuel tanks were empty and urgently requested being filled up we drove to the nearest filling station. As soon as we stopped, Akela was crowded by its employees. “Oh, Mercedes is good”, was said constantly! More than once they were walking around Akela, examined it and took Selfies. One of the employees couldn't be stopped from getting behind the steering wheel and driving Akela to the fuel pump.

Turkish people in command of the English language became fewer and fewer and therefore making ourselves understood was a rather big challenge at the filling station. Using a few words of Turkish, hand and feet and google translator, we managed to make ourselves understood and managed to understand what was being said. The Greek people had already welcomed us with great hospitality, yet Deniz and Serdar, the owners of the filling station, even topped what we had already experienced. We got water for the water tanks, were allowed to stay for the night at the filling station and were offered great dishes such as bean soup and 'Menem' (peppers and tomatoes get stir-fried in lots of oil for about 10 minutes, then some eggs are added, left to rest on the oven for another 1-2 minutes - ready – and incredibly delicious). We could enjoy chai whenever we wanted, such as anywhere else in Turkey. Lennox was the absolute star at the filling station. Deniz and Serdar were fooling around with him and played with him. However, just like the other men, those two also wanted to hug and kiss him, which he did not like just like he hadn't done so before. After enjoying our last cup of tea early in the morning we left the filling station. Before setting off towards Ankara on proper asphalt roads we were all hugged, cuddled and kissed.

Ankara with 5,2 million inhabitants is very different from Istanbul. The city is modern and clean, with beautiful parks and has neatly dressed people....Ankara is the administrative and economic center of Turkey. 

Despite our worries we got smoothly through the traffic and instantly found the consulate in the city center. We stopped just outside the consulate in the short term parking as our plan was to quickly walk in, pick up our visa and carry on driving. This shouldn't take too much time which made us risk a parking ticket. 

When entering the embassy we had to draw a number before being allowed to enter the waiting room. After only 10 minutes our number was displayed on the screen and we passed the Visa Grant Notice to a man through a slit in the glass window and waited. The man stood up and disappeared into a room where we couldn't see him. A few minutes later he returned with the bad news that there were no reference numbers for our names available yet at the consulate. We explained to him that he must be wrong and that there must be a misunderstanding as we had just passed the reference numbers to him but he insisted that we should return the next day and asked us to leave by calling out the next number. Well, we had not expected this to happen in such a way and wondered why the embassy did not yet have our numbers and names listed. Not even a phone call to the travel agency helped to clarify the problem and the only option left for us once again was waiting. 

Our original plan of getting to Cappadocia quickly had to be set aside. “Visa-waiting” was on the agenda and in order to do so we had to look for a pitch to sleep unexpectedly as staying in the short-term parking lot with Akela seemed to be out of the question for us. Even though the location would have been perfect: the Iranian embassy was just diagonally opposite the road, and directly opposite were the Ankara Hilton hotel, supermarkets, shops, coffee shops and play grounds all within walking distance. 

Walking briskly we were searching for a place to stay in the streets around the embassy. We must have raised the attention of one of Hilton's Security Guards when looking so helpless as he approached us and offered to help. Very briefly we explained our situation to him and need for a pitch to stay when he got out his mobile phone to make a phone call. A few minutes later the concierge of the hotel joined us, took out his mobile phone as well and after a short phone call told us that staying in the short-term parking for a longer time would be perfectly okay as the hotel had sorted this out for us. Özkan, the concierge, kept supporting us within the next days. He helped us by translating at various embassies, color copied our passports as we needed that and serving us chai, day in day out became matter of fact. Quite unbelievable, isn't? Can you imagine our situation “the other way round”, namely parking a ten ton camper van in the short-term parking in Vienna just outside the Hilton hotel? How long would it take until a bored housewife reported it to the police? A maximum of five minutes, I guess, until you would find yourself in big conflict with the police. Thank you so much, Özkan, for the great help and hospitality you and your team have given to us. As chance would have it, we wouldn't have come across Ümit without getting to know Özkan. 

When buying goods at the tobacconist, Özkan had recommended, we happened to meet Ümit. In perfect English Ümit told us a lot about Turkish tabacco and showed great interest in our way of traveling and our world tour. He studies at one of the best universities in Turkey, additionally attends German and English courses and has to do five jobs on top of that. After the stop at the tobacconist we were strolling back to Akela, where we offered him some Austrian tea. Ümit was a young and western-minded Turkish man, who bluntly spoke his mind. Without mincing matters he chatted about past and current political problems and incidents, which have been destroying his home country. He felt comfortable in Akela and we were honoured and proud when he accepted our invitation to stay for dinner. We cooked pasta and sausage, an Austrian dish called “Wurstnudeln”. ;-) Ümit left us after the feast but offered his help regarding translation service at the Uzbek embassy for the next day, which I gladly accepted as we had to apply for our next visa there. I was also happy to have him to help us as my phone calls with the embassy had been more than a disaster since they had not really been able to understand me, nor had I understood them.

At ten o'clock the next day we jointly went to the embassy by taxi. Thanks to Ümit's help and translations the application ran rather smoothly and our visa for Uzbekistan, should this be true, be ready for pick up within ten days. 

After this job had been done we went to a café and continued our previous conversations drinking coffee and hot chocolate. It was always refreshing and reassuring to speak to Ümit and when doing so also happening to get a deeper insight into his home country and its political situation. The population was enraged, disappointed and felt let down. It appeared as if the current president wouldn't have many followers among the Turkish inhabitants.

Afterwards we parted as Ümit had to go to university and we returned to Akela. We arranged to meet up again at dinner time when we would also get to know Ümit's girlfriend Berna. Both of them wrecked their brains to find a place which offered very traditional food cooked in a small kitchen. The food tasted amazing. We could indulge in soup and Turkish ravioli which had absolutely nothing in common with the ravioli we know but were lovely. Turkish desserts are not everyone's cup of tea. On offer were cold rice pudding and honey pie. Each time after Turkish desserts I feel an urge to make an appointment with the dentist, and even our sweet bear waved them aside after having had some of it. 

Ümit and Berna invited us to come to their flat and there time passed incredibly quickly. We were discussing matters, talked about politics and religion and while listening to music and laughing a lot, Lennox kept their two cats busy. We said good bye at one o'clock in the morning and went home to Akela by taxi.

We spent four unforgettable days in Ankara. Though it was tiresome and shattering to start waiting at the Iranian embassy every morning from 8:30 onwards and being there for quite some time just to be told once more that our visa were still not available. On the other hand we had numerous invitations to have some tea or coffee. We received messages from strangers via facebook who welcomed us, others simply knocked at the doors and offered their help, others again just wanted to take a picture of us. All of this was balm on our souls. 

The political situation in many of the countries we were about to drive to soon was tricky and demanded a great deal of research beforehand. Our plan to travel to China in and with Akela demanded getting over a lot of bureaucratic obstacles. However, it not only meant a hell lot of bureaucracy but also financial burden which we had to put up with when driving through this huge country. Entering Thailand was hanging in balance after the king in office had died and the government played mad and enacted new laws every other day. If and when entry would be possible is still written in the stars. Inquiries after inquiries, internet research, contact with other travelers, phone calls, and amid all of that there was small Lennox. Lennox, who had no interest in all of that and who made sure we would get to know how he felt about it. Once in a while the question came up whether we were really doing the right thing. We had known from the very beginning that it wouldn't only be a walk in the park when traveling the world, but none of us had expected it to be so hard. 

For four days we punctually waited at the Iranian embassy until finally we received the liberating news that our visa were ready. Hoooray! Our visa really were finished! After paying €75/head we could finally pick up our passports including the dearly yearned for stickers (as that's what they were – nothing more but stickers).

Feeling confident and carefree again we lay down early to be rested for our early departure towards Cappadocia, a true fairyland.

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