Chapter 48: Entering Eastern Europe

Trip Start Oct 01, 2003
Trip End Nov 2004

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Saturday, August 14, 2004

I arrived in Istanbul at 8:30 Wednesday morning after a restful 12 hour busride from Goreme. Yay for sleeping pills! Unfortunately it was pouring in Europe's largest city (well, I'm told it's Europe's largest city), so the metro/tram/foot journey to Sultanahmet was pretty miserable. Of course the rain stopped as soon as I reached my destination. I booked into the Orient Hostel, and then went out to wander around Istanbul with a cool Canadian guy named Scott who I'd met at Kose.

Our first stop was for lunch at Doy Doy, where I had a tasty eggplant puree dish that wreaked havoc with my stomach a few hours later. Then we walked through the Grand Bazaar and the Spice Bazaar before crossing the bridge to the Karakoy neighborhood. This part of Istanbul is distinctly different from Sulatanahmet - less touristy, but more continental. We strolled along classy Istiklal Caddesi all the way to Taksim Square, where we stopped for coffee at Starbucks (an enormous multi-floor Starbucks, incidentally). We browsed a few book and music stores, checked out clothes on offer at Diesel, and had a good time swapping stories.

I knew something was wrong on the long walk home, because the ache in my stomach was growing at an alarming rate. We got back to our respective hostels at 6:15, and from that point on the pain was so bad that I pretty much stayed in bed until the next morning (aside from frequent bathroom runs). Luckily my roommates were friendly and helpful (Nicolas from Sweden grabbed me some crackers while I was out), and I watched "Death to Smoochy" and listened to tunes while clutching my tummy.

By morning I was OK again, although I didn't trust food again yet. I checked out of Orient (it was good but my room faced the street and was too loud), and went over to Scott's place, Mavi Guesthouse. The only space they had was on the roof - one of dozens of ratty bunks under a tarp - but I thought it'd be a fun adventure to sleep up there, and it was wicked cheap, so I signed in. That afternoon I ran some errands: restocked on Immodium and sleeping pills, swapped some books for a thick "Let's Go Europe 2003" (not ideal, but useful for places that won't warrant individual guidebook purchases), and bought a bus ticket to Sofia, Bulgaria for the next morning.

The bus trip yesterday was long (9 hours) and dull, and it was broken up only by an excruciatingly slow border crossing. At least our bus got to pull right up to the gate (for all the good it did)... I felt awful for the thousands of people in the hundreds of cars parked on the street for about 10 kilometers, waiting for their turn to cross into Bulgaria. I was told they were mostly European vacationers returning from Turkey, and that many of them would spend the night in line. Despite our priority status it still took the border officials almost 2 hours to stamp 30 of us through in between their tea breaks. I expected Asian borders to be chaos, and European borders to be a cakewalk... and the exact opposite proved true!

Anyway, we finally got to Sofia at 6pm, and I walked about 1km to the place I'd booked online for two nights - the Internet Hostel. After a little confusion I found the place, which is essentially a converted apartment with 4 guest rooms. When I arrived the tiny lounge/TV room/dining room was packed with about 6 people, none of whom were the owner. She showed up before long, and insisted that my reservation hadn't appeared in her files the night before. Nonetheless, she was very accommodating and found a fold-out bed for me and made space in the dorm (my info arrived belatedly, for some reason).

I quickly made some new friends, including an outgoing Czech guy (Peter, or Petre, I think), and an awesome local student named Ven, who Peter (we'll stick with that name) met on the train. As soon as I was settled the beer and Rakia (schnapps-ish moonshine) started flowing, and it wasn't long before I remembered that I hadn't eaten in over 12 hours. Peter, Ven, Ven's sweet girlfriend, and I all set out to buy some wine and find some food. Ven gave me a quick lesson in cheap but excellent Bulgarian wine, and then we hit McD's before going back to the hostel, downing 3 bottles, and watching the Olympic Games opening ceremonies.

Today I explored Sofia, which is an interesting and not unpleasant city. The atmosphere is rather Russian, thanks to the similar language (not to mention the Cyrillic alphabet) and the architecture, but Western brands are everywhere... you can't walk 2 blocks without hitting a McDonald's, Dunkin' Donuts, or KFC. Some of the old churches/cathedrals (St. Alexander Nevsky, St. Nicholas, and St. Nedelya) are gorgeous, and the stately government buildings and wide streets are grand. There's a little bit of street hassle from sketchy guys trying to pressure you to change money or donate to some cause, and you're supposed to beware of the pickpocketing gypsy children (to be fair, the ones I saw looked innocuous enough), but on the whole it's a nice place to walk around.

I think tomorrow I'll either head east to a town called Veliko Tarnovo, or take a train straight to Bucharest and jump from there to Transylvania. It's exciting to be 100% in Europe finally, and I'm psyched to work my way north and west from here. I'll be in touch again soon... in the meantime, Happy Birthday Mom!

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