Day 431: Back On Track

07.02.10:

The ferry ploughed head-first into the Greek port of Igoumenitsa at around 6am (it was still 5am for me) and speedy disembarkation was encouraged… mmm… no passport controls… nice! Whilst sleepily trudging across the car park I noticed that there was a bus marked “Istanbul” waiting picking up passengers off the ship. Must be some sail & ride scheme or something. Not wanting to waste a minute, I knocked on the door and asked for a ticket. The driver’s mate asked for €80. I offered €50 and that seemed to work. Lucky it did, the bus took off before I got to my seat.

No time for love, Dr. Jones…

Igoumenitsa is not the most attractive of towns, so it wasn’t too much of a heartbreak to bypass it and head straight towards Thessaloniki through some of the most scrumptious countryside in the world. Not wanting to sound too much like somebody who skips without the rope, the wild flowers of Greece are the envy of Europe, where we’ve murdered them all with herbicidal crop-spray. The first colours of Spring were making their presence felt and I couldn’t help but feel like the rest of us are damn well missing out on something here.

The day seemed to fly by and before I knew it I was approaching planet Istanbul. I was last in Istanbul on the 3rd of February, so that’s over a month just to go to two damn countries – Libya and Algeria. I hope this isn’t an omen for what is to come over the next few months. But it probably is. Welcome to the chapter of this adventure that I’m planning to entitle MY VISA HELL.

My drivers were exceedingly keen to get us to Istanbul on time, so much so they actually swapped over whilst doing 70mph on a freeway. A little terrifying, but even so the bus still was late getting to old Constantinople. I felt a little bad turning up at my prospective CouchSurf host’s house in the middle of the night, so instead I made my way to the Oriental International Hostel in delightful doontoon Sultanahmet, the UNESCO World Heritage Area and home of the famously Blue Mosque. There I met Greg, an American guy who was doing the old travel/work type thang and helping out in the hostel in return for free board and beer. I ended up having a little to drink before crashing out in my bed at some ungodly hour of the night.

Day 432: Day of Disaster

08.03.10:

Woke up at a respectable time and headed over to the Iranian Embassy all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. I jumped in a taxi only to find it would have been a five minute walk. If that.

And so mere seconds later (and €5 lighter) I waltzed into the Embassy and gave the bearded chap behind the visa window my reference number (given so I could pick my visa up ‘straight away’)… sadly I was told that my reference number wasn’t valid.

What?

I paid CHRISTKNOWSHOWMUCH for this damn number. Are you on crack?

Try again tomorrow.

Dammit.

Not to be phased by this unfortunate turn of events, I then jumped in a taxi and asked him to take me to the Azerbaijan Embassy. MORE TAXI FUN! To be fair he DID bother putting his meter on, but then he drove in circles around the one way streets of Sultanahmet in order to ask directions off his mate, and then he proceeded to take the longest possible route to our destination. By the time the meter was up to €18 I demanded to get out. I didn’t care that we were on a freeway, I wanted OUT. You have to understand, a usual cross-town taxi fare is €5. To get there on public transport would be €1.50. This guy was, like all taxi drivers, just a scumbag rip-off merchant out to smear the otherwise good name of taxi drivers.

I found out later that if he had taken the bridge nearest the hostel, it would have been no more than €5, but I digress…

So, it’s drizzling with rain and I don’t know where the hell I am, but I manage to make my way down off the overpass and onto the main street below. Having buried my menly-men-never-ask-for-help pride a long time ago, I asked a couple of lads which way to go. Being awesomely awesome, they elected to accompany me there on the Metro. About twenty minutes later I was outside the Azerbaijan embassy only to find it closed for the day.

Public holiday, see?

Great. So I hurried to Istanbul for WHAT exactly? For WHAT? The reason I went to the Azerbaijan Embassy was to extend my visa – as with my visa for Libya AND Algeria, it ran out on the 28th February. Quite why they can’t give you a visa with SLIGHTLY more leeway, I have NO FRICKIN’ CLUE, but there you go.

I thanked my co-conspirators profusely and headed over to the nearby shopping centre to unlock my Turkish SIM card (dopey over here forgot the PIN) and lo-and-behold A BRIGHT SPOT ON THE HORIZON! I found a brand new deck of Bicycle Playing Cards for sale in a bookshop. I went from sulky mook to beaming loon in less than a second. Simple minds, simple pleasures.

One annoying thing about the public transport in Istanbul is that you can’t buy a through-ticket. That means that every time you get off one bit of transportation onto another you have to pay another couple of Turkish Lira. This is, as you can imagine, quite irritating, especially when to get back to the Sultanahmet from the Azerbaijani Embassy you have to take the subway, a funicular and a tram.

I got back to the hostel in no mood for anything but beer, and beer is what I got. My roomie, Atheer, has to be the most unique person on the planet. Not only is he a Palestinian Israeli (shurely shome mishtake?), he’s also an atheist. Which made growing up in the most religion-obsessed region of the solar-system somewhat, er, interesting and put him in the rather singular position of being able to view the ongoing Palestinian-Israeli conflict stripped of all that divine-right mumbo-jumbo. He did get beaten up in school somewhat though, atheism presumably being the least popular option on the curriculum.

Later, Atheer, Greg and I hit the town, or more specifically Taksim on the north side of the Golden Horn (teehee), looking for trouble. We had a couple of beers but to be fair, it was Monday night and town was deader than a dodo who slept with Stalin’s wife. We got back to the hostel at eek-I’m-scared-to-look-at-my-watch o’clock.

A footnote to my philanderings: If I had not messed up with Algeria, I would have got into Istanbul late last Friday night, so it would have made 100% no difference whatsoever as the embassies are closed over the weekend. FACT!

Day 435: The Getaway

11.03.10:

The fact that I got out of bed this morning just goes to show how dedicated to the cause I am. Atheer didn’t get up until well after noon. First up, I needed my passport back.

After a quick (but surprising) fingerprint-taking session, the Iranian Embassy gave me my little burgundy booklet of travel, furnished with a brand new visa. I had Iran in the bag. Now I just have to get there before World War III kicks off.

I had got in touch with Jamel, a couchsurfer in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, to ask if he could write me a new letter of invitation. No probs he said, but it would take him a couple of hours to get it proofed and everything. The Azerbaijan Embassy closed at 1pm and was way way way on the other side of town. I HAD to make it. At 11am I was on the internet at the backpackers a little more than worried. By 12 noon I was beginning to panic, but at 12.15pm the letter had come through. I emailed it over to Mehmet on the front desk and he printed it out for me. I grabbed it HOT OFF THE PRESS and began to RUN!!

I headed FULL PELT to the Sultanahmet Tram station, took it all the way to the end of the line where I changed for the Taksim Funicular, arriving at 12:41. I thundered through the station and jumped on the Metro service to Levent in the very north of the city. The train pulled in at 12:55.

You should possibly understand at this point how hungover and sleep-deprived I was. Madness, utter madness.

And, even though the bloomin’ escalator was out of service, I managed to bound up the mofo all the way into the clear crisp spring day that was awaiting my return to the surface, sweating beer and chagrin. 12:57. I pegged it up the road towards the Embassy like a man possessed, arriving at 12:59.

They let me in.

Panting, exhausted and ready to faint, I got into the little portacabin office on the right of the mansion house and presented my documents – bank statements, letter of employment, letter of invitation…

This is no good.

What? Sorry, I mean WHAT?!!?!

It must come from the government.

I was told it didn’t have to, I just needed a letter. From someone in Azerbaijan. Written in Azeri. Well, here it is.

Nope. No good.

He saw that I looked like I was about to burst into tears.

Why don’t you try the embassy in Tbilisi, Georgia?

Thanks for nothin’ Azerbaijan! And to think… you used to be my favourite word.

After yesterday’s gallivanting around the travel agencies of fair Istanbul, I knew that the buses for Georgia left at 6pm. There was nothing else for me here. Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru had been brutally murdered by Stormtroopers and they had totally trashed my T-16. How could I be expected to bullseye womp-rats now?

Atheer was up for one final crazy night out, but The Odyssey comes first. Georgia here I come.