Friday morning I looked at the weather forecast before layering up. It was to be partly sunny with a high of 4° and (for a change) just a light wind. The first 12 kms from Kumburgaz went quickly, so I decided to stop for lunch at a restaurant rather than dine on my supplies. By the time I was done, the weather had changed. It was less than a light rain but more than blowing mist. Blowing? Yes, the wind had picked up again.
It was then and there that I should have put on my rain poncho, but my weather resistant windbreaker was enough to keep me dry at that point so I didn't bother. (sigh) It was also at that point, just a few hundred metres past the bridge in Büyükçekmece, that I left the D-100 and took a detour through town. The nice wide shoulder I'd been walking on for the last 200 kms vanished as the road headed through the first of İstanbul's western suburbs. Looking at my GPS app, it seemed as if the road through town rejoined the highway in a less built up area, and I hoped that the shoulder would reappear at that point.
I set out uphill along the sidewalk, and quickly realised this was not going to be fun. The road was more or less clear of snow, but unless individual shopkeepers had cleared the sidewalk in front of their stores, I was left slogging through a wet, sloppy, treacherous mess of slush, running water, and ice. Even Goretex won't help in that situation, and my socks were soon squishing with every step I took. (Thanks to the wonders of wool, my feet weren't cold for long after each new dousing.)
It took a long time to cover the next few kilometres, and when I encountered a traffic jam at 2:30 in the afternoon, I decided to call it a day. Gas station for directions, supermarket across the street for supplies, and then another kilometre of wading through ice water to the nearest hotel in Beylikdüzü. I checked in, showered, did some laundry in the bathtub, and wound up watching TV for several hours after dinner. Ahhh, luxury!
Saturday I had an early breakfast and stepped out into the bright morning sunshine with the hope of reaching central İstanbul by early evening. I made my way to the D-100 and was surprised at the amount of traffic there was on a Saturday morning. I was further dismayed to discover that my hope of continuing to walk along the shoulder was impossible. What little space there was between the live lane and the concrete crash barrier was filled with the snow which had been cleared from the road.
There was a pedestrian overpass nearby, so I headed up to see if the situation improved further along. It didn't, but I discovered that the overpass led to the final stop of the İstanbul Metrobüs line, which runs along dedicated lanes separated from traffic by a crash barrier topped with a chainlink fence. It's a fully electronic fare system, and there was nobody in the ticket booth to sell me a card, so I made another detour along the neighbourhood sidewalks to the next station east. The ticket booth there was empty as well, but a very helpful security guard showed me which machine would dispense a pre-paid transit card. A three-fare card cost ten Turkish lira -- unfortunately, that was the only time I expect to use it, and it's not valid on the regular city transit.
After a few kilometres, I noticed that sidewalks had appeared alongside the road. I don't know how other people have managed the walk into the city, but I was just as happy to be inside a vehicle for that stretch. About 45 minutes into the ride, I spotted the towers of the western wall, completed in 413 during the reign of Theodosios II. I decided this was a good place to resume walking, so I hopped off the bus at the next stop.
I took my time, enjoying the warm sunshine and marvelling at how quickly the massive snowfall of the preceding week had melted away. My first stop was the Patriarchal Cathedral of St George, in the Fener district. This is one of several buildings in a compound which hosts the official residence of the Ecumenical Patriarch. After entering the church and paying my respects, I wound up speaking with a priest. Judging by his accent, Fr. Niphon was raised in North America. He was happy to tell me what time services are held on the weekend, and asked a few questions about my pilgrimage. Unfortunately, there is a massive construction project underway at the moment -- most of the clergy have had to relocate for the duration, and it simply wasn't possible to put me up for a few nights.
Because I'd taken the bus, it was still early afternoon and I had plenty of time to locate a cheap and conveniently located hostel. For 22 lira per night, I've got a spot in a three bed dorm room, which is even cheaper than what I'd paid on my visit back in 2006. No breakfast, though, but that's fine. There's a small grocery store just a few storefronts down where I'll be able to buy the essentials. About the same distance in the opposite direction there's a souvenir shop which has several washers and dryers in the back room. For ten lira per kilogram, my clothes are now clean and dry. :-)
Sunday morning I attended Liturgy at the cathedral, and then headed to the Sultanahmet district to meet an old friend from my days at the Balamand. He and his family are living in İstanbul now, although they're from Antakya originally. Yes, he is Antiochian! (Interesting historical note: the Patriarch of Antioch has not resided in Antioch since the 14th century, when Patriarch Ignatius II transferred the See to Damascus.) After drinking tea and catching up a bit, I had time to grab a cheese pizza and some ayran before heading back to St George for Forgiveness Sunday Vespers. I'd downloaded the full text of the service, so I could follow along as it was chanted in Greek. Normally I don't bother, since the structure of Matins, Liturgy, and Vespers doesn't change no matter which liturgical language is used, but the hymnography for this service is worth burying my head in my smartphone.
After the service, I got talking with an American who's attached to the embassy in Antakya and who had come to the city specifically to begin Great Lent here. We wound up talking for two and a half hours, and would probably still be talking if not for the fact that he's heading back to Antakya at 6:00 tomorrow morning and still has a lot of reading to do this evening. As I've said before, the best part of my pilgrimage has been connecting with people. Sometimes these are residents, while other times they're fellow travellers.
I'm planning to stay in İstanbul for a week. My original plan would have seen me setting out for Antalya after only two or three days, but I have since revised that. Brandon Wilson recorded his walk to Jerusalem from France in "Along the Templar Trail," which I had read over a year ago while still in the research and planning stage. In the appendix, he included a list of dates, towns, and distances, and the route he took across the mountainous Anatolian peninsula involved several 50+ kilometre days, usually followed by a rest day. Because he was walking in the warm months, he didn't have to carry winter gear, meaning that his pack weighed about half of what I'm carrying. April would be an ideal time to tackle this portion, since it's warm enough to camp out (and thereby avoid those 50 km stretches) while being cool enough during the day to remain comfortable. Since I'm aiming to be in Jerusalem for Pascha, which this year falls on April 12, that is clearly not going to work for me. It is still possible for me to do this section by foot, but I've been examining a few other options.
What I think I'll do is take the bus to Antalya and then walk to Taşucu, where I can catch a ferry to either Girne, Cyprus or Tripoli, Lebanon. Yes, Lebanon! By skipping the long and gruelling cross-country trek, I'll have the time to go visit some old friends before flying from Beirut to Larnaca, Cyprus and from there to Haifa, where I start walking again. That means I won't get to see much of Cyprus at all, but I think it's a worthwhile tradeoff. I'll have to find an Internet café in İstanbul, as browsing websites in Turkish (which I don't understand) is rather tricky on my smartphone.
Another travel decision I have to make before arriving in Israel is when I will return home, and from whence. When I looked at flights last summer, flying from Tel Aviv to Toronto would have cost several hundred dollars more than leaving from either Amman or Cairo. I've never been to Jordan, but on the other hand, I would love to revisit Cairo and perhaps return to St Catherine's Monastery in Sinai on the way.
And now, to bed. I'm hoping to make it back to St George's for the service tomorrow at 8:00 am.