Istanbul and the Orient Express

Missed My Train, then a 36-Hour Train Ride on the Orient (Dusty) Express

I couldn't believe what happened.  I showed up to the train station (Serkeci) on time, with a huge amount of satisfaction, or so I thought.  Actually I showed up with 45 mins to spare.  But when I looked for my train, it wasn't there, not even a friendly backpacker from Australia or Denmark.

Oh no! The train had departed 15 minutes ago. My ticket would expire by tomorrow and I had to wait another 24 hours to board a train to Budapest, pushing my schedule back another priceless 24 hours (I have to be at GW for my residency by the 16th).

As soon as I realized what happened, an obnoxious taxi driver came rushing towards me.  

"I can take you to Cerkezko," he insisted, as if he was the answer to my prayers.

I was reluctant.  Carkezko, the next stop was over 80 km away -- the train would arrive there two hours later, by midnight.  The taxi driver could not show me on the map where this town was -- I was doubtful he knew where it was -- and I was afraid that he would rip me off.

"No train, no money, no problem," he exclaimed, meaning if we didn't make it to the next town on time to meet the train, he would simply bring me back to Istanbul and I wouldn't have to pay a fare.

Without much choices and after talking with the station manager, I decided that this was foolishly the best course of action.

Though taxi drivers in Istanbul are known to be offensive, aggressive drivers and love to tell you their life stories, they are for the most part trustworthy.  They are not thieves, and they are not known to harm you.

So, why, was I, Mr. Prompto, 15 minutes late for the train.  Well, yesterday, when I arrived in Istanbul from London, I advanced my watch by one hour.  But actually, I should have advanced my watch by two hours.  I didn't know -- nobody had told me, not even the friendly flight attendant.

So for the entire day, I was operating an hour behind everyone else in Istanbul.  I was wondering why my hotel receptionist at the Historia Hotel was so upset when I checked out at 11:15 AM -- I was over an hour late for check-out, and I didn't even realize it.

So Carmile, the taxi driver, drove like a bandit, honking and shouting, and got me to Cerkezkoy, 75 km away, with 15 minutes to spare.  The price -- he didn't have a meter -- was $170 USD.  The price was steep, but not having to spend another night in Istanbul (which I wouldn't really have minded) and boarding my train to Eastern Europe, was well worth the money.

So Taxi drivers in Istanbul can be trusted, for the most part.  But I wouldn't suggest anyone miss the train.  And always, always, synchronize your watch with the local time, religiously.

The Orient Express from Istanbul to Budapest was very noisy, dusty and hot.  At first, the train was fully booked and they put me in a coed couchette with four other people squeezed together in a very tight cabin.  I felt like I was in a submarine, except for the clack, clack, clack of the train rail that went on continuously through the damp, dusty night.

There was nothing better than getting woken up at 4:00 in the morning and having to disembark the train with women and children standing in line to show our passport to customs at Kapikule.

The restroom facilities was filthy and never had enough toilet paper or soap.  So word for the wise, if you go on these long train trips, I suggest you bring your own basic essentials.

Also there is no food or water.  It wasn't until we arrived in middle Bulgaria midday, where a little kid tried to sell us sandwiches and water from the train window for 5 Euros.  Perhaps he had hiked up the prices, perhaps, his mother made the sandwiches.  Nevertheless, we were famished and those salami and cheese sandwiches was exactly what the doctor ordered.

The train stopped in Bucharest where we had a quick look outside.  I noticed that there were a lot of stray dogs running the streets. Homeless dogs appeared in the 1980's after Ceausecu's dictatorship, when houses with yards and fences were destroyed and replaced with apartments with very small rooms.  This forced people to keep their dogs on the streets where they repopulated and now there is an enormous stray dog problem

Bucharest, Romania

Taking a picture of a statue.  I have no idea what this lady was saying to me.

A Dip Between Two Continents

History:  Istanbul, a city enriched by history, was chosen as the site for the New Rome by Constantine in 324 AD the founding date of the Byzantine Empire. It was enriched by Constantine and conquered by Faith Sultan Mahomet in 1453. Today it is a bustling, glowing and modernizing city that opens its arms to Western visitors. 

The Grand Beylerbeyi Palace at the Waterfront overlooking the Bosphorus Strait and the Asian side.

Overlooking an ice cream maker twirling a huge dough of ice cream during my run downhill towards Sirceki

My new friends I swam together in the Bosphorus 
(I left my bag of belongings with their mother as I dived in the refreshing brackish waters)

As the waterway that divides Europe and Asia, theBosphorus is the link between the Sea of Marmara and the Black Sea and is thus churned heavily and entirely clean.

Interestingly, Istanbul is the only city in the world located on two continents: Asia and Europe

In DC, I am always amazed whenever I get an opportunity to run in Maryland, Virginia and DC all on the same day (National Harbor to Alexandria via Woodrow Wilson Bridge is one such run).

But I've never considered ever running in two continents on the same day.  I've never dreamt of swimming in between two continents, either.

Both of these goals were achieved today.

As a pedestrian, there is only one way to get across the Bosphorus (The Bosphorus Bridge is closed to pedestrians, runners, and cyclists). 
This ferry took me over to the Asian side of Istanbul

I swam with this kid and all his friends at the shores of the Bosphorus
There are lots of remnants of old Navy equipment: torpedoes and even a carcass of an old submarine.

And that is exactly why I decided to take a dip in the Bosphorus Strait and the Sea of Marmara.  The Bosphorus Strait, which separates the Sea of Marmar with the Black Sea, surprisingly was not very salty.

Contrary to public belief, you can swim in the Bosphorus. There are several locations north of the Galata Kpr (bridge) where someone can jump in and swim next to the shoreline.  There are plenty of rock landing areas where an adventurous swimmer can swim ashore.

The Sea of Marmara (along Kennedy Boulevard) is a little more tricky since someone would have wear shoes to ensure he doesn't cut himself on the large jagged rocks.

And the water felt extremely cool and refreshingly uplifting.

After the dip, I continued my run from Sultanahmet to the Beylerbeyi  Palace.  I didn't take the beaten path where tourists and businessmen traversed.  I took the lesser known path and wanted to see Istanbul in its purest, raw state.

In fact, I didn't see a single runner for the entire day, except in the evening running along Kennedy Boulevard adjacent to the Sea of Marmara.

During the day, I could hear many a tourists and locals commenting on how insane I was to go for a run in this unbearable hot and sticky temps.  I commented casually, that it was no hotter than DC in July and running actually cooled me down some.

But it was challenging dodging people, cars and fishermen along the bumpy, narrow cobblestone streets.  Ladies wearing headscarves, men selling their wares in the bazaars -- it was all very interesting; it was all very uniquely Istanbul -- the most unusual city in the world.

The managers and staff at the Historia Hotel, like all the Turks I met, were very friendly and hospitable.
Not having my running shoes (since my bag was still in DC), I had to manage just walking around town.  But that was fine... there was plenty to see at a snail's pace.

The Jubilee Walkway is one of the official walkways in London which connects the heart of London with all the tourist attractions.

I was able to squeeze in a little bit of sightseeing between the Triathlon and my flight at Heathrow.  It was nice to see East London and all the construction occurring around the new Excel Center, the future hub for the 2012 Summer Olympics.

The Magnificent and Magestic Jubilee Walkway links most of London with the central, heart of London, it's financial center.

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