Oh Halal Istanbul!

Story by Nick Armstrong, photos by Robin Pearson

Sick of the terrible English weather 5 of us had booked flights to Valencia at the end of February.

Ze and I met Rob in the Gatwick South terminal and the three of us checked in along with a 12 strong hen party also headed for Valencia. Robin and Perry were still MIA as the end of Check-In time drew closer, a phone call found that they were en route and had an ETA of “We should just make it… We think”.

They did make it but needn’t have bothered with the rush as the departures screen added a two-hour delay to our flight departure, followed by further delays. An announcement came on directing passengers of our flight to the arrivals lounge, where our previously checked-in luggage was curiously awaiting us when it should have been expectantly awaiting us on the plane.

I was surprised how calmly our group reacted to the piece of news that was delivered to us by a rather ‘rugged’ looking/acting female Easyjet employee. I believe she got her job for just these qualities as they set her in good stead for the reactions of the passengers upon hearing that the flight was cancelled. To be fair it wasn’t Easyjet’s fault, France air traffic control weren’t allowing flights to pass over their country as they’d just gone on strike.

We found that Easyjet would either refund the flight or we could swap for another flight at no extra cost. We studied the map of Europe showing airports Sleazyjet flew to. The criteria weren’t too much to ask – good weather, potential stuff to ride and cheap beer. This pretty much ruled out anything but southern destinations. The flights that had space for us were flying to: Sharm El Sheikh (Egypt), Marrakech (Morocco) and Istanbul (Turkey). Ze was doing a fine sales pitch on Sharm El Sheikh, which was promptly renamed to Camel Shake for the rest of us that couldn’t pronounce it. It was sounding promising until we heard from an Egyptian lady in the queue that the police and security there would not take kindly to us riding on their buildings. My preconceptions of Egyptian security (based on no facts whatsoever) figured losing a hand for doing a wallride on a Sphinx would not be a fair exchange. I was put off as were the other three for whatever reason. Marrakech had been done recently by another group of riders. So we rolled the dice and changed our flight destination to Turkey (a place that joined the ever lengthening list of countries that eluded my GCSE A-grade geography qualification).

The airline stumped up for a hotel where we could stay until the flight early next morning. Our group stuck out like a sore thumb in the posh hotel, five ratty bmxers in the lobby with bike boxes, complaining at the £5 pint prices were probably not their usual clientele. I hadn’t packed a towel for the trip so thought it only polite to permanently borrow one. Having not seen the larger sized towels I went for a medium hand towel, which left me with a fetching gap to flash a bit of leg or other body parts.

An uncomfortable sleep was interrupted by the early morning alarm signalling 15 minutes until the bus to the airport would arrive. Naturally we stayed in bed for a further 10 minutes and got to the bus stop as the bus pulled up. Once at the airport we checked in and boarded. The longest flight I’d been on previously was just over two hours, which was far too long to be confined to a plane seat with bmxers that arguably suffer from mild ADD. This flight was four hours. We amused ourselves by watching the same three youtube videos repeatedly and played ‘the boner game’, in which any word would become funny when the word boner was added after it. The game had started from a Props Austin housecheck video where the guy confesses to getting ‘anger boners’. This 5 year-old humour would keep us occupied for the rest of the trip. Humour boner.

After forever we landed, paid our £10 to get a visa and a passport stamp, claimed our bikes and got a bus to Taksim. The land was never flat, always rising and falling. We drove through hills with populated areas changing from very shanty looking to slightly less shanty looking and more densely packed. We crossed from Asia back into Europe via bridge. I don’t know what I was expecting, but this wasn’t it. If someone had told me I was looking at large sporadic settlements in China, I would’ve believed them.

The bus let us off in Taksim having done some hill climbs that really shouldn’t have been possible for a vehicle that size. From Taksim we had to make our way to SultanAhmet, which was a 2km hike with our luggage. One of the first things you noticed was the sheer number of stray cats, I’m pretty sure they outnumbered the people there even though Istanbul has one of the highest populations of cities. Once again I was left trailing behind looking longingly at Ze and Perry’s bike bags with wheels. Just put one foot in front of the other and keep telling yourself that the box tormenting your shoulders and arms cost you nothing.

The hostel was paid for in Euros and we made ourselves at home in the room we were given, there were 6 beds, leaving one bed potentially free for a traveller. It was just the five of us in the room for the whole time, which was probably for the best as I would’ve felt so sorry for an unfortunate traveller’s lungs had they been put with us. On one particular morning I swear Perry actually transcended the need for vocal speech and could answer any given question with a bowel movement. I blame the Turkish pepperoni, which is made from Turkey (the clue’s in the title) since pork isn’t allowed by religious law out there.

The next morning we found out what a typical Turkish breakfast consisted of: bread rolls, feta cheese, olives, cucumber and tomato. This was made better when we found out it included unlimited free coffee. After enough coffee to send an army of stray cats to kitty heaven we rolled out in search of spots.

We rode some step setups that we’d passed the night before. The steps were just after a main bridge so was constantly busy with foot traffic. Getting a run in between crowds of people was tough; they’d often stop right in the landing just out of curiosity. Two little street urchins took time out from selling junk to climb all over mine and Perry’s bike, trying to get a lift on the pegs. This was alright until one of them hurt their knee and started shouting and crying pointing at me. We had no idea what he was saying but was causing a lot of people to stop and stare so we packed up and left before things got sketchy and expensive. Shady street rat.

The sky was overcast and threatening rain so Robin quickly fired out a gap over a dumpster and Ze tweaked his ankle trying to spin a decent set of steps that had a tight, car-dodging run up. Perry found a gap to flat rail and got that done just as the clouds started to spit. We took cover in one of the many outdoor kebab cafes. As soon as you’d sit down a Turkish waiter would appear out of nowhere with a menu and a tray of Turkish tea, called Cha (ch-eye). Looking completely out of place, we’d always be given English translated menus. The translations were misleading at worst and hilarious at best. Upon seeing there was a burger called ‘Returns to Fatso’ we all ordered one (I think Robin got a vegetarian Fatso). My favourite was a meal we found in another café titled ‘Lamb Blown Up’. I’d have paid good money to watch them make that dish!

Having eaten we went looking for an indoor skatepark we had read about on the Internet. There was a lot of walking up hills in the rain with no real idea where the park was. As we were ready to give up Rob looked up a side street and saw the park’s name written on a sign. It was built in the rooms under a kebab shop, which excited Rob with the idea of being no more than 10 metres from ramps and decent Turkish kebabs. Shame it was closed…

The rooms the park was in weren’t huge and had quite low ceilings. But despite this the people that ran it had made use of the space very well getting a variety of ramps into every last square inch of the place. It was more skateboard-orientated but completely worth a session whilst it was wet outside. Rob was the first casualty of the low ceilings. He head butted a beam coming back in from a wall tap, taking him clean off the bike. A 6 year-old kid challenged me to an epic game of chess, which ended in him being victorious. He must have been from Mensa or something, when I was six I couldn’t even spell ‘chess’ let alone known which way the horse moved.

The second and third days saw better weather so we got to scout the city a bit more. We found a street plaza style spot with step sets, blocks and ledges. We had a good session there clocking some clips while dodging passed out, bloodshot-eyed dogs and more cats. A political rally was happening in the square behind us, which we could’ve ignored if it didn’t have a number of 4ft kickers in the centre. Robin and Ze got a few runs at them before we were kicked off. Not knowing the Turkish for “can we have one last go” coupled with the amount of police carrying large rifles helped make our decision to move on. This was the only time on the whole trip we were asked to leave a spot. Other times the police would come up to us interested in what we were doing, laughing when they found out we’d come from England to ride little bikes in their city. They still wouldn’t let us hold their guns though…

We found some decent setups around the city usually just stumbling across them whilst riding up and down Istanbul’s limitless hills. Rob got a big ledge manual at the university, earning himself a 2.1 for sticking it second go. We found an Aladdin look alike hiding between mosques so Perry got a hang five photo rolling past then went on to double peg a long ledge. Robin did his best to catch gangrene by crashing and dragging his knee through the dirtiest patch of the city, and later rode flat out into a 1,600 year-old aqueduct (missing the huge archway he was aiming for) after a gap off an amphitheatre.

Even though we only had three full days in Istanbul the five of us managed to find some good spots, experience a very different culture, eat a lot of animal and have an awesome time! Nothing on this trip went as we had planned, we didn’t end up where we thought we would, but I definitely didn’t want to leave.

An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered; an adventure is an inconvenience rightly considered. – GK Chesterton

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