It was hard work dragging ourselves out of bed that morning, but we were determined to get to Istanbul by the end of day. So after a solid night of sleep and a strong shot of coffee on the house, we headed out to drop Mikaela off in Sofia and catch up with a friend for lunch while we were at it.
The short ride from Niš to the Bulgarian border took about an hour and forty minutes. Crossing borders between Serbia and Bulgaria proved to be a charming affair. The Bangladeshi passport always raises a few eyebrows. The Serbian official asked us where we were headed, and made a gesture of shooing us through quickly in amusement when he heard we were headed to Mongolia. Bulgaria would be the only country in our journey between Germany until Georgia that I had not been to. But having travelled through the Balkans last summer and through Romania earlier this year, I knew I’d like it.
We made it to Sofia by lunch time, and tried to meet with our friend Ivo for lunch. He asked us to meet at the mall, and unfortunately, we struggled to find the place. What our GPS led to was a large bank. The guard tried to help us by drawing a map, and after a couple of U-turns, we eventually ended up at ‘The Mall’. Yes, it’s not just the mall, but it is actually called ‘The Mall’.
We had a quick lunch of traditional Bulgarian food at the food court, which had a surprising number of vegetarian options on the menu. After catching up on each other’s lives, we handed Mika over to the safe hands of Ivo, exchanged hugs and said our good-byes. Mika, who had joined us from Frankfurt onwards, would spend a few nights in Sofia before continuing her holidays in Greece.
We started for Istanbul at around 2:15pm in the afternoon. It would be another 560km to our destination with a total driving time of 6 hours. With border crossings and traffic into Istanbul, this would end up being much longer.
The traffic between Bulgaria and Turkey was sparse. We’d see a few cars here and there, but most of the cars we saw were German license plated, and we assumed they were Turkish migrants living in Germany that were heading home for the holidays. We reached the Turkish border by late afternoon, and while the border officials were a bit curt we got through without incident.
We arrived in Istanbul close to 10pm, and were quite surprised by the heavy traffic. Moritz nearly knocked over a police motorcycle in the dark while changing lanes and almost hit the two officers perched on their vehicle. The one sitting in the back shook his fists at us but rode away without hauling our butts to jail. This was reassuring as it was far too early in our trip to be encountering law enforcement officials. We arrived at our hostel without a criminal record and found another Mongol Rally team parked in front. We had been communicating with those guys via Facebook, but it proved challenging to meet up with them. We needed dinner, and they were already out getting a drink.
We took a stroll around the neighborhood in order to find food, but most restaurants were closing by then. We mistakenly walked into a kebab shop and asked to see the vegetarian options. Chicken was offered as a perfectly valid alternative to meat, but we weren’t so convinced. In the end we found a small restaurant and wolfed down a fresh pide together with a hearty salad.
It was warm in Istanbul, but we turned on the very slow moving ceiling fan in our room and fell into a deep sleep. Tomorrow, we’ll head to Samsun near the coast, before making our way to Batumi in Georgia the day after.
This post is part of a series covering my trip across Central Asia in four weeks.