23/08/2013 - 30/08/2013
We got on the train in Sofia and found our sleeper compartment. We were with a French family who we got chatting to. We were allocated the bottom two beds but as the French family were wanting to sleep sooner than we were, we traded one bottom bunk for a middle bunk as then we could keep our beds as seats for a while longer. Unfortunately, when we did come to turn our seats into beds, we discovered that the middle bunk was broken. Jamie and I therefore got moved into a different compartment instead where we had to have the top 2 bunks. Still, at least we had beds and we could try and get some sleep. We managed a small amount but then got woken up at the Turkish border. Passport officers from Bulgaria came on the train and checked all our passports, which was fine. We then travelled on a bit further to the checkpoint on the Turkish side. At this point you have to get off the train to go through passport control, which we'd known about in advance. Also, thanks to some advice from Jamie's Dad, as well as a check on the Seat 61 website (which is very useful for train journeys in general), we knew that we needed to get a visa sticker before going through passport control. There's a visa window further down the platform and you need a £10 note (or a roughly equivalent amount in Euros or Dollars). That was quick and easy, then we joined the queue for passport control. Unfortunately this involved waiting quite a while as there weren't any border officers there. Even more unfortunately, Jamie felt ill. A border officer eventually appeared and started processing the queue, but Jamie was in a bad way. He had to temporarily leave the queue in order to go and throw up. That thankfully made him feel a bit better, plus he was back just in time for us to get our passports stamped. We then got back on the train and tried to get some more sleep. This wasn't really possible though as as soon as we left we had our passports checked again - I guess to make sure we had actually gone through passport control and hadn't just gotten back on the train. Fair enough. What did seem quite unnecessary, however, was checking our tickets again about 15 minutes later.They'd been checked earlier in the journey and our reservations had been handed in. Did they really need to be checked again? Especially in the middle of the night when we'd hardly slept? It also didn't help that one of the guys in our compartment couldn't find his for ages. He did eventually though, thankfully, then we were able to get more sleep.
I wasn't keeping much track of the time, but we must have just had about an hour and a half of sleep, if that, before it was deemed necessary to wake us up again. As there's some work going on with the Turkish train lines at the moment, the trains aren't running all the way to Istanbul, so we had to get on a bus for the last part of the journey. We were woken up about 30 minutes in advance of that. We assumed this timeframe was to allow us ample time to wake up and casually prepare ourselves for arrival. Wrong. As soon as we'd been woken up the conductor started taking our bed sheets from us. He literally pulled them out from underneath the Brazilian girl on the bottom bunk. The rest of us watched in amazement and then started gathering ours together. The conductor then started folding up any beds that people had gotten down from. He folded up the middle ones while I was still up at the top. I needed to stand on one of the middle ones in order to get down! Thankfully my compartment compatriots assisted me in my descent. I couldn't believe how rude the conductor was and how devoid of compassion he was for the fact we'd hardly slept. I mean, why did the beds even need to be folded away in advance of our arrival at the station? Ugh. Some overnight trains are pretty decent, but I'd advise against the one from Sofia to Istanbul.
On arrival at the station we made our way to the bus. Of course we couldn't all fit on it so we then had to wait for a second bus to arrive. Once we were finally on a bus we made our way to Istanbul. I think the journey was about 2 hours, though we tried to grab as much sleep as we could. Once in Istanbul we found a cash machine to take out some local currency and then took a tram to our hostel. We stayed at Stray Cat Hostel which was decent, though they only had a couple of cats, which was a shame, we were expecting more. Anyway, it was only breakfast time when we arrived, so far too early to check in. We were both really tired though and Jamie still felt ill so we spent a few hours trying to sleep on the sofa in the communal area.
When we were able to check in we were actually upgraded to a double room with a private bathroom (we'd just booked one with a shared bathroom), so that was a nice bonus. The hostel itself was decent - breakfast was fairly basic but sufficient, plus there was tea and coffee available all day. The staff were friendly and helpful and always checking if everything was ok. The wi-fi was a bit temperamental, but that's been pretty common on our travels so far. It doesn't reach up to the top floor, which we discovered later on when we were very briefly moved up there, but you can pick it up everywhere else.
Our original plan was to spend 4 nights in Istanbul and then take a bus to Ankara. We were only going to spend 1 night in Ankara as just needed to be there in order to get the train to Tehran in Iran. However, as Jamie was ill for our first few days in Istanbul, we changed our plans in order to have more time in Istanbul and actually get to explore the city a bit. So instead of spending 1 day on a bus to Ankara and then 2 days on a train to Tehran, we booked an additional 3 nights in Istanbul and then caught a flight to Tehran instead. The only downside of the change was that we'd already booked a non-refundable hotel room for our 1 night in Ankara, so we lost a bit of money there, but I still think it was worth it.
So, our first few days in Istanbul were mostly spent in our hostel room. As well as getting some rest and relaxation, plus Jamie recovering from illness, we also needed to sort some bookings for our time in Iran. This took quite a long time as it's a lot less straightforward than booking things in other countries, partly due to US sanctions and partly because online bookings aren't as prevelant in Iran. The things that we needed to get booked were our hotel rooms for the 4 cities we were visiting, plus an internal flight from Tehran to Shiraz. The flight wasn't too difficult to book, we just did it through an agency (specifically Persia Travel Mart). They were fairly quick at replying to e-mails and we got it all sorted in a couple of days. We had to make payment via Western Union (and also via Thailand), but that was easy enough and we got our flight tickets via e-mail.
Sorting out hotels was a bit more difficult. We'd use reviews on tripadvisor to determine possible places to try, but some of them didn't seem to have websites or any kind of contact details. Plus we'd e-mail some and not get a response. We ended up e-mailing any that we could (and which weren't really expensive) and hoping that we'd hear back from at least one in each city. Thankfully this paid off.
After our initial 4 nights at Stray Cat, we needed to move rooms for our additional 3 nights. Initially we were put up on the top floor in a private 5 bed room, as they seemed keen to upgrade us into better rooms than we were paying for. We moved our stuff in there after breakfast. It was a nice, quirky room. It was called 'seaview' but in order to see the sea you had to stand in a particular spot (marked on the floor) and crane your head out the window to the right. The only downside was the lack of internet. This didn't end up being a problem though as we got moved again that afternoon. We could have stayed in the big room, but mightn't have been able to keep it for the whole of our remaining time there, whereas we could move into the room we were actually paying for instead and not have to worry about moving again. It was a bit of a no-brainer really. The only annoying thing was that we got charged a higher rate for our last 3 days than we did for our first 4. Apparently because their Summer promotion had come to an end. Bit of a pain but nothing we could do about it. That's definitely a benefit of booking places online in advance - you have written confirmation of the price.
Anyway, enough of the pre-amble, you're probably wondering what Istanbul was actually like. Well, it's big, that's for sure - massive infact - so we only got to see some small parts of it. Some of the bits we did see were:
- Taksim Square and the main shopping strip that comes off of it. This was near to where we were staying, though you had to walk up a steep hill to reach it. It was very busy, especially at night, but a nice area to walk around. We went to a traditional restaurant up here too, which was nice, although Jamie's aubergine kebab came with some surprise chunks of lamb in it, which wasn't so good for him, but thankfully there was enough non-meat food on his plate to still be filling.
- The area around the Blue Mosque is probably the biggest draw of the city. We went there a couple of times - once during the day and once in the evening. The mosque itself is stunning:
- We took a boat across the bosphorous, to and from the Asian part of the city (we were staying in the European part).
- Basilica Cistern. We got here not long before it was due to close, so we had to rush a little bit, but not too much - it doesn't take very long to walk around it all. It's an old underground filtration system, which doesn't sound very exciting, but it looks really atmospheric the way it's lit up:
I'm sure we only scratched the surface of Istanbul really, but still, it was now time to head to Iran. We had a fairly early flight, but we could take the tram and then the metro to the airport, which was nice and straightforward (and cheaper than a taxi). One of the hostel staff misinformed us though, he said we'd only need 1 token each and we wouldn't have to exit and re-enter barriers between the tram and metro, which we actually did have to do. But still, that aside, the journey to the airport was fine. The airport itself wasn't great though - the queue for passport contol was huge. We then had a quick breakfast, slightly rushed to make the boarding time, but we then boarded late, queued for ages to get on the plane, then left late as well (unsurprisingly). Still, we were on our way to Iran!