Day 12: Istanbul, Turkey

by Oliver Smith
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I spent today sat in a café on the shores of the Bosphorous looking towards Asia, pummelling my lungs with a shisha pipe and reflecting on our 3,000-mile road trip across Europe from London.

Maybe more than any other place on Earth, Istanbul is a city with travel in its blood. It straddles a narrow strait between two continents ­– and because of this happy accident of geography, it’s forever been a bottleneck for people heading both East and West. It’s a place that zings with the excitement of great journeys about to begin – a city that has, over the centuries, waved goodbye to pilgrims en route to the Holy Land, merchants plodding along the Silk Road, Crusader knights off looking to pick a fight…

And, last but not least, hippies.

When Lonely Planet founders Tony and Maureen Wheeler came here around 40 years ago, Istanbul was their launch pad into Asia – just as it was for a generation of young travellers. A wonderful read about this time is Rory MacLean’s travel book Magic Bus. He writes of hippies who would break into the Topkapi Palace by night and have cosmic sex in the gardens; who painted peace symbols on Ottoman walls; who gave themselves names like ‘Blossom’ and ‘Wombat’ and disappeared over the horizon on technicolour buses bound for Afghanistan. They were part of a long tradition of travellers to tread Istanbul’s streets and leave their own mark on the place.

But there’s a sad end to the tale. Istanbul today is no longer the same stepping stone between East and West. For the last year or two, the route south into Syria has been impossible, and Iraq difficult. The route Tony and Maureen once took through Iran is now risky to attempt with a British passport – and riskier still if you’re attempting it with a rucksack full of filming equipment like me (if you’re lucky enough to have been to Iran, I’m green with envy). That’s not even considering Afghanistan.

For a while I sat in the café listening to the afternoon music of the Bosphorous – the brassy honk of the ferry horns, and the screech of seagulls looping about the minarets of the Yeni Mosque. As ever in Istanbul, there were the sounds of commerce, too: hawkers selling mackerel sandwiches, bootleg perfumes, teddy bears that – when squeezed – sing Gangnam Style over and over until the batteries run dry.

Every traveller who has stopped in Istanbul must have wondered if they’d ever see a city more wonderful, more full of life, on their onward journey. Fingers crossed that one day there’ll be another generation of overlanders to Afghanistan setting out from here – and they’ll ponder the same question.

This time, however, we’re taking a different route.

The day in statistics:


  • Shisha pipes smoked: 1

  • Cartons of Ayran (a yoghurt drink) consumed: 4

  • Continents visible: 2

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