Gateway to Asia: Istanbul

Manas and Anu now step into Asia. Istanbul is their first stop- but there is an unexpected twist in the tale…

The ride from Akontisma (Greece) till the Ipsala border had the usual irritants: blinding heat, high humidity, hot engine, heavy sweating, etc. But there was something else too- a vague tug in the belly- an edgy feeling that gnawed at me- yet I could not place what was wrong. Anu also was in a similar state since morning. The motorbike was doing great- it purred its way through, slicing through the tarmac like a hot knife through butter. So what was the issue? Was it the food… the place… the ride… the temperatures… the late night swim in the sea… we quizzed ourselves trying to pin down the reason. Maybe it was the place- after all a 3000 year old village-hotel can have its mysteries. But we were restless- and apparently without a cause.

On the way from Thessaloniki to Turkey, we had a night halt at Akontisma, a 3000 year old village located near the town of Kavala in eastern Greece. The ancient village has been reconstructed and today serves as a heritage hotel. We loved its tiny paved pathways, the stone cottages (one of which housed us), the church and the amphitheatre… it all fell within the heritage village. We spent a lovely evening there and talked long into the night with our Greek hosts and a couple of Romanian guests.

Today we were heading into a new country and continent- Turkey, the gateway into Asia! Much of Europe that we had covered in the past months, carried relics of the Ottoman rulers… now we are heading into this land of the mighty Ottomans!

When we finally rode out of Akontisma, it was 11am. From Akontisma till the Ipsala was a distance of about 200 kilometers- the ride was through miles of arid Greek plains- interspersed by an occasional fuel station or a small village. Our motorbike cut through the tarmac like a hot knife passes through butter- effortlessly. A few kilometres before the border we took a hydration break- fuel for the bike, snacks and a smoke- and then we pushed forward into the heat again. The border post at Greece was serpentine- there were several lanes for passport control but only one of them was operational. It was 40 degrees without a spot of shade while we waited in the queue for 2 hours with our motoring gear sitting on a hot motorbike engine. Finally, we cleared the Greece border checkpost- and now the river Maritsa (the boundary between Greece and Turkey) was only meters away.

We could see the Turkish military across the bridge- standing in attention, fingers on the trigger. We followed the convoy of vehicles on to the bridge, behind us too were a long queue of vehicles. Welcome to Turkey I muttered under my breath… and at that very moment I heard the loudest noise ever- it sounded like an explosion- but long drawn- and it came from right under me. The military guys stiffened, the folks following me in the queue nearly panicked- and truth be told I almost jumped out of my skin. This loud wail, was from my motorbike engine- it was the loudest I have ever heard any motorbike sound- and at that moment, I realized why both of us had been so cagey since morning. Perhaps we sensed something amiss but could not exactly make out what.

“Do we go back?”Anu paraphrased what was in my mind. But that will not help- especially since the nearest Ducati center was almost 400 kilometers away. It would also mean re-entering the Schengen territory and the passport control process all over again. Its best we go through the Turkish border controls and then figure out what we do. And with that resolve, we pushed the motorbike into yet another queue- this time on the Turkish side. The process here seemed more complicated- the first queue for inputing the vehicle details… another where passports are checked… a third point where the visa and vehicle insurance is processed and finally the gate where everything is checked before you are officially allowed into Turkish territory.It was important to stay focused… “One step at a time” we told ourselves- and we pushed the motorbike with the weight of our earthly belongings, from one queue to another. After almost a couple of hours we were through with the paperwork. It was also expensive- imagine this: Turkish border insurance for 1 month cost 85 euros for a car… but the same for a motorbike cost 150 Euros. I was stunned- why such a penalty! “Motorbikes in Turkey are a rich man’s passion- also there are far too many accidents with motorbikes hence the insurance premium is very heavy”, explained the officer politely. I had to accept… what else could I do? And after I got over the initial shock, I started chatting with the officer. Soon, he was offering me juices, fruits and coffee from his personal collection- and when I politely declined, he forced a bottle of cold water and two glasses: “You have much to travel… a glass of water for each of you please”. How could I decline?

We were still within the Ipsala border passport control area- our documentation was done. Beyond the final gate the road stretched ahead… another 300 kilometers till Istanbul. There was no way we could ride even 3 kilometers with the motorbike in that condition. We decided to make our stand there- and figure out the next steps.

In this area before the final exit gate, we came across a little “open air” café. There were sandwiches, warm tea and the basics available. And that was when it came to us both- we were just so lucky to have a breakdown at this exact spot. Just think about it- this was the only real inhabited space within several hundred kilometres. The place was perfectly equipped- food, water, rest, security. And even though we were technically out of European Union to our complete surprise, my EU sim card was working still- with uninterrupted voice as well as data (in previous cases I had connectivity issues when I travelled into non EU countries like Albania, Macedonia, Montenegro, etc).

My first call went out to Alper and within minutes he reverted back with options and solutions. With incredible speed and efficiency, he took it upon himself to arrange my ‘rescue mission’… connecting with the Ducati Helpline for Turkey, calling for tow-truck and repeated follow through to ensure that forces rally together to reach out to me 300 kilometers away at the Turkey border. Within 2 hours of the first call, Alper had orchestrated the entire sequence: a tow truck was on its way, the service team at the Korlas Ducati center in Istanbul was on standby to receive the motorbike and we were continuously kept informed of the progress. And just after the final confirmation whatsapp and calls were completed, my data as well as voice call expired. We were officially incommunicado- but that was again when the kindness of the Turkish came to light. We were among friends- the café managers (Emin and Saddetin) brought their personal cell phones; they took over the local language coordination with the tow-truck, the call center as well as with Alper and his team.

Thus, while we waited for help to arrive, we were surrounded by new friends, and offers ranging from use of personal simcards, to sharing meals and homes in case of any emergency flooded us as the Turkish border and passport control center. Most incredible of it all- there was little or no English spoken between us… the communication happened through sign language and occasionally, Google translate. It was the most amazing welcome to a new country that anyone could ever have hoped for! To be surrounded by helpful, warm friends who may not speak your language but know the universal language of kindness and human connection.

The tow truck finally arrived at 11 in the night; my friends from the café saw us through till the passport gate, the passport control officer (who also knew our situation) waved us good luck- and right outside waited our tow truck and its driver Ugur Ceylan. At regular intervals throughout the journey, Alper would call to inquire about us- and it was only at 5am when the motorbike was safely inside the Ducati Korlas facility and we were dropped at our accommodation in Istanbul that Alper said “good night”. He had been relentlessly supporting us for the past 12 hours of this weekend ordeal!

During this experience and later in the night Anu and me discussed this much- even if we were to plan a breakdown scenario, we still could not have envisioned a set of circumstances so perfect as what we experienced. The perfect location, the cell phone coverage, Alper and his team of Ducatistas, the comfort of ready food, shelter and security- and above all, being surrounded by caring strangers in a nation where we are only at its borders! If even a single one of these variables were to change, it could have been a precarious situation.

What were the chances of such a series of absolutely perfect coincidences working in clockwork precision… indeed what were the chances that two people who hail from two distant corners of India are now together and experiencing such wonders in another part of the globe? These are the times when agnosticism comes under serious question.

When we had set out, we believed that angels would help us along the way- and each passing day was unveiling new realizations for us.

 

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