Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Lada Legend: The Colonel Goes West - Part Five

The question we dared not ask at the Turkish border was whether or not I could leave the country without the car. And why would you? It probably would've got us turned around and headed back to Georgia. Instead we had faith in the ol' Colonel and hoped he would get us at least out of the country--two and a half solid days of driving.

We stopped for the night in Rize, one of the many tea plantation cities along the northeast coast of Turkey. Our poor car had struggled with the heat most of the day and started threatening to stall out while idling at a stop sign or light. It was tough going on the narrow streets of the city, but we managed to navigate our way to the Hotel Tibet and park the car in an alleyway. We made it to our hotel rooms dirty, sunburnt, and exhausted. What a day.

The next morning we went outside to start the car after breakfast. No dice. Nothing we did would make the Colonel come to life. Of course, this drew the attention of the hotel staff who, due to their ages, knew exactly what to do to start an old Zhiguli (after all, the Turkish Tofaş was based off the Italian Fiat...same as the Zhiguli). It was time to do the old "start the car my popping the clutch" trick. Fortunately for us, there was a short, but steep, incline in the alley perpendicular to the one we were in. It must've been quite the sight. Three guys and two girl pushing an old car up the incline. We then pushed it as hard as we could down the hill hoping to get it started. It took a couple of tries, but eventually the Colonel coughed and sputtered to life.

"Where is there a mechanic?" asked Amy.

"It's on the other side of town, but you'll never find it. Follow me and I'll show you," replied the owner of the hotel.

He was absolutely right. We would never have found it. One nice thing about medium-sized Turkish cities is that all of the automotive stuff is consolidated in one area. If you know where that area is, you can get almost anything done. The hotel owner took us to a guy that had the "Lada" logo hanging above his garage door. When the mechanic came out and saw our car, we knew he was the right guy for the job. Dirty hands, an old Niva in the garage being rebuilt, no fancy computers or other such technology. We told him what the problem was and without even looking, he knew exactly what to do. Within minutes he had the car starting perfectly and the carburetor tuned as well. No more stalling out while idling, he informed us. We paid, thanked him, and continued on our way.

We had no idea how far we would get, so we just started to drive. The Turkish roads are beautifully done; divided highway all the way to the Bulgarian border. This doesn't make for the most exciting driving, but luckily the Colonel's serious pull to the right keeps you awake. We stopped for lunch at a beautiful spot on the sea where we watched dolphins gliding through the water. This is what makes driving cross-country so enjoyable.

One of the coolest things about driving an old car with Azerbaijani plates in Turkey is that you get a lot of stares, honks, gestures of solidarity, waves, and photos. The roads were not particularly busy, so most cars that overtook us would rubberneck as they went by. A couple of cars followed us for a few kilometres just to get a better look at the Colonel. He was definitely turning heads!

Perhaps the worst part about driving in Turkey is the price of gas. More than two euros/litre across the whole country. It was tough going from a $28 full tank to a $90 full tank. Makes you wonder why Turkish trucking and bussing are so popular.

We stopped in a sleepy village of about a thousand inhabitants for the night. A great little town that probably had witnessed its first-ever Soviet car sighting. The old men milling about were practically ogling the old boy.

The car started fine the next morning and we took off down the freeway hoping to get to a town called Edirne on the Turkish-Bulgarian border. It was a long day that involved getting on the 6-lane toll road and driving at 110km/h for about two hours. Eventually Istanbul was within reach. I had been there a couple of times, but only realized the extent to which is sprawls while driving from one side to the other. The suburbs went on and on and on. A sign at the edge of the city limits states the population at twelve million and change. With the suburbs, it's probably more like twenty.

As cool as it would've been to park the Colonel down by the Bosphorous, we figured taking the freeway around the city was probably the best idea. It was eight lanes of madness travelling at 100km/h. All I could think was, "Ok, Colonel, now is not the time to breakdown. Please, please, please get us out of Istanbul." At last we came to one of the famous bridges towering over the water. It was a defining moment of the trip. Out of Asia and into Europe!

Edirne has a wonderful city to visit should you happen to be in the area. It's almost like a miniature version of old Istanbul. Not in the sense that it sits on any body of water, but because it has old, narrow streets lined by old buildings. Little markets are woven right into the streets, so it all feels very natural. And of course there are the beautifully-architected mosques that rise up from the centre of town.

As we pulled into the Karvansaray hotel (an old building from the Silk Road era that housed merchants) parking lot, I couldn't help but notice that the clutch wasn't working properly. Uh oh. Would this be it for the Colonel--so close to the Bulgarian frontier? All we could do was wait until tomorrow and see what happened.  

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