Istanbul – Leg 1 completion 4,500km

Whoever wrote that East meets West in Istanbul hasn’t been there, they really haven’t. It would be far more accurate to say that Istanbul creates East and West. I’m not going to waste a thousand adjectives describing this City. It isn’t even one City, instead it’s a community of cities, a network of hundreds of villages and 25 million individuals living either side of the historically glutinous Bosphorus. To describe Istanbul as a place where East meets West is like saying that Mecca is a convenient meeting place for Muslim backpackers.

How Greenwich has held its own as the centre of the earth I am baffled, I just hope nobody here notices. Maybe the Turks haven’t figured out the Docklands Light Railway to discover it, and pray they don’t. I’ve enjoyed 20 minutes in the Maritime museum just as much as the next man, but after visiting the splendour of the Blue Mosque and the museum at Hagia Sofia – a church with unrivalled religious and architectural importance, I can only assume that somewhere along the line Lord Coe was involved in Greenwich’s bid.

We can say with pride that we cycled the entire way into Istanbul. The chaos that greeted us on the ten lane highways was expected, so too were the thousands of trucks, whistling passed only inches from our panniers. What we had not prepared for was the vastness of the mayhem. We had long since lost signs for Istanbul when two young daredevils on mountain bikes pointed out that we were already in Istanbul. “Where you want?” they would ask. “Istanbul” we would shout over the thunder of lorries, “Yes, but where you want?” they would repeat. We tried to ask for the centre, or “centrum” as this seems to be the universal word. Presented with expressions of disbelief from our new friends we asked a cab driver, kind enough to have pulled over. Perhaps kindness wasn’t his only motivation as by now our four bikes were blocking the two lane junction exit. He patiently explained to us that the centre was ahead of us, “just keep going straight” he said. He successfully got us moving again and onwards we went. We soon realised that this wasn’t going to be a simple task. We didn’t know where we needed to go as we hadn’t checked our e-mails in days. Nor did we have confidence that we would recognise exactly when we had reached the centre. After an hour of searching we found some unlocked wifi and located our host address. Fortunately we were within reach of a coastal road that would take us most of the way there, the downside, it was still a further 60km away. It defies belief that within a city you could pedal so far but make so little progress on a map. We were still no more than a third into the City but after 6 hours had at last found our meet, a multilingual student from Afghanistan called Zabi.

Zabi is a fantastic guy. He has now tirelessly hosted us for 5 days, and in that time has entertained us with untold stories from his homeland and past. Some stories had us in stitches, but others remind you of how different things are across the world, and you feel guilty for growing up in such a sheltered country. We are all of the same generation, but yet experienced very different environments. Life is quite simple back in Afghanistan, you watch what you say and do. For Zabi I won’t talk more about this, but as a result of our conversations we have now amended our route plan through the next stage. He has a lot of relevant experience and knowledge and we have no point to prove. We are both very grateful to Zabi for all the wonderful breakfasts and dinners and for our first Afghan cuisine. His mum would be proud 🙂

Hakan of the Ottomans

There are two figures responsible for rugby being played in Turkey. The first is Mustafa Kemal Ataturk who simply founded the country of Turkey in 1938. Founding the country is a necessary step in enabling rugby in that country, but sadly he made no further progress in this field. Turkey was a baron rugby desert until December 1999 when a man named Hakan Ünsal initiated the first rugby club. Most clubs start with a team and then build a structure on top. Hakan was content to start a club, then work about getting a rugby team to represent it. Although Turkish, his family had moved him to England as a young boy where he had attended school in Surrey. It was here that he developed a love for the game, one that he was not going to leave behind when relocating back to Istanbul.  He managed to communicate with a small group of players with overseas rugby experience and between them they organised some early training sessions with just five players. They slowly built and recruited through the usual methods; plying friends with alcohol and compliments until they commit. He taught the laws of the game to his team and then developed early skills. Two of his early apprentices later left to start other rugby teams and spread the word.

Hakan and his disciples (Marc, Dennis and Chris) kept their eyes out for opposition but still the only club, they were forced to seek teams belonging to the Navy or overseas corporate. Eventually they gathered 15 players and got a fixture against a Nato XV, this was the first official rugby match in Turkey.

The next match was organised against a team from nearby Greece, Athens Spartens. It was a home and away fixture, the first played in Greece. Despite the Greek team having 10 years of experience Hakan’s men triumphed in both fixtures. They now needed a name, and with little history to reflect on they decided to create a name in a similar vain to the Spartens. The Istanbul Ottomans were born.

For the next few years their only fixtures were friendlies against newly formed clubs Kadıköy RC, Bakırköy RC and Cyprus Pumas as well as visiting neighbouring countries. In 2006/2007 the committee at the Ottomans called a meeting with the board from the other Turkish side to discuss creating a “Turkish Rugby Union” and a national league structure. Hakan was voted as the president of this union and the first league was organised in 2007/2008. The Ottomans were victorious in this first chapter of Turkish rugby.

Further success for the Ottomans came from the Ameland Beach Rugby 7s. They joined the competition in 2008 finishing 4th, but returned in 2009 to win the tournament. A feature of this beach rugby tournament is the social manner in which teams participate, both on and off the pitch. I met with the Ottomans team at a training session, it was like being back at Footscray RFC, fun first, then rugby. One player, Ozer, fondly described the Ottomans as a “drinking team with a rugby problem”.  They are well managed, well attended, and if you are in Istanbul looking to establish a network of friends, look them up. Incidentally, if you are looking to tour, they have their own pub space and hotel in the heart of the city to host you.

One ex-Ottoman who left Istanbul to live in Holland has not stopped his work to build Turkish rugby. Hasan Akman set about giving Turkish rugby a boost himself. He developed plans for hosting an international 7s tournament in Istanbul. Ably assisted by Hakan, Emre and his colleagues at the Ottomans, the group organised the stadium, facilities, promotion, sponsorship and legal essentials for running a tournament on this scale and so the inaugural event is now set to take place on 7th/8th August 2010. It features an exciting line up with national sides from Germany, India and Libya competing against teams from Dubai, Egypt, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Kazakhstan, Turkey and the UK. It should make a fascinating event and will no doubt raise a few eyebrows across the rugby world. (

Nevermind the history of Istanbul, today’s City is as modern as any city in Europe, with sporting facilities a plenty. With a national population of nearly 74 million and a successful history in weightlifting we can expect to see strong progress made in rugby once the proverbial egg is rolling. Even newer is the emergence of Turkish women’s rugby coached by Hakan himself. After learning of the traditional national sport of Yağlı güreş, meaning “oiled wrestling”, there can’t be a man alive who won’t join me in wishing Hakan the best of luck with this project.

When we left Twickenham Stadium on May 1st, we had set out to discover the next powerhouses of rugby. If the rugby forces here can shake the oppressive shackles of Turkish bureaucracy and achieve IRB recognition, I think we may have found our answer. The rugby spirit is here, the individuals are here, and with the culture and population lies huge potential.

We have enjoyed a fantastic stay in Istanbul, thanks to our host Zabi and to Hakan and his wife Esbie. Hakan has introduced us to the delights of Turkish streetfood, from mussels to potatoes, and from mojito icecream to chicken breast pudding whilst they have all provided us with invaluable advice and assistance in planning our next leg. It will be hard to leave tomorrow morning, but leg 2 awaits us, the newly amended voyage to Islamabad where we will regroup to prepare for the Himalayas crossing.


4 Responses

  1. Hey Huddo,
    You’re getting pretty eloquent with these blog postings these days – or is Jodie writing it all and you’re just taking the credit? Either way it’s gonna make a great book when you finish.
    God speed you crazy kids!

  2. Quick thought, you should tap Aldi for some sponsorship you must have given them £10k worth of plugs. News – Harry Ellis retires due to knee injury. The Gun Runners come no where in the Olney 7s, lack of bearded players blamed.

  3. Once an Ottoman Always an Ottoman :))

    bon voyage!!

  4. Hey Tom and Jodie,

    I hope your well and the Himalayas is a walk in the park!??Updates are a great read. Romania have now a 2 legged game with Uruguay for the last spot at the World Cup in November I think after beating Tunisia

    All the best


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