May I just start this post by saying we are not in Istanbul – but we couldn’t update the blog from China. Also – this will be the third time I’ve written this post in its entirety! I won’t bore you (or myself) too much with the details – but let me just summarise by blaming it on bad Chinese internet.
But back to the story…of Istanbul. I will admit I was in two minds about the place. On the one hand, I’m not a fan of the everyone but me wearing a head scarf thing or having to wear a wedding ring just to get respect (as one friend put it). But the history of this ancient
city cannot be denied – and so in that sense, it was among the places I was most excited to visit.
We rolled into town in the early morning hours. Actually, that’s one good thing about train travel (beside the fact that it’s cheap)…you get to see areas a normal tourist never would. Factories, an old car repair shop, crumbling buildings – in other words, real life. In
Istanbul, desert-like fields gave way to blocks of flats of differing heights and shapes, all stacked on top of each other. We got a sneek peek of people’s morning routines, you could spot someone having their first cigarette of the day or walking to work. We also saw bits of the old city wall, and our first glimpse of the azure blue waters for which the city is rightly famous. We could tell, this was a big place and unlike any other we’d visited before.
We boarded a tram fairly easily and crossed a bridge into Galata to locate our hostel, Bada Bing. We were greeted by the young, friendly owner who immediately referred to Chris as ‘bro’. He explained it was in its first month of opening, which was apparent as there was still construction going on and more work to be done. Our room wasn’t quite ready (some electrical wiring issue), but he made us a tea and offered use of the shared facilities. I opted for a shower, as the heat was already getting to me and I felt like crap due to my persistent cold.
Somewhat revived, we went back to the Galata Bridge in search of Istanbul’s famed fish sandwiches. We walked up to the water’s edge as soon as we spotted it, alongside lots of local men with fishing poles. The water was the deepest blue I’ve ever seen. Across it we
could see at least two palaces and half a dozen mosques with their characteristic domes and towers peircing the skyline. It was beautiful, it was strange, and we were fascinated by it all.
Under the bridge, we came to the bustling fish market. So close to the water, with the boats docked alongside it, most of the fish was so fresh it was still alive! We saw a couple guys with grills on wheels cooking up the catch of the day, adding fresh lettuce and tomato to big bagettes. I felt like getting out of the sun and sitting down though, so we parked ourselves in a ‘fish restaurant’ (I use the term loosely here) situated between the fishy displays. We both enjoyed our meals very much. Sitting under a patchwork of tarps alongside a sort of wasteland behind the market, we saw a little cat stalking a family
of baby chicks. I didn’t know who to route for, being a cat lover. But in my heart, I was on the side of the chicks. As we sat relaxing, talking about how far we’d come and where we were – we were roused from our daydreaming by the sounds of a melodic call to prayer – a
song that chimed and echoed throughout the city from loudspeakers all around. Among these sites, smells and sounds…I think a slight case of culture shock finally hit us.
Heading back to the hostel, we opted for the long route around – walking through shops selling fishing gear: nets, poles, ropes and the like. Crossing a very scarily busy road – we wound our way up towards the Genovese Galata Tower. Enroute, we went through a couple of smaller alleyways selling things more up my street (both literally and
figuratively) – vintage, refashioned and handmade clothing. I resisited the temptation to browse we sensibly bought some yoghurt, oats and fruit instead – which had become our standard meal at hostels, where we had access to a frig. Cheap and healthy too, it seemed to counteract any bad things we might ingest later in the day.
Back at the hostel, we took an afternoon nap – another habit we’d developed on days when we arrived by overnight train. Waking early evening, we walked down to the Tophane area to a restaurant recommended in our guide book. Once inside, the place was a madhouse! There were a dozen waiters flying around – even though the place was tiny and half empty. Upon sitting down, we realised what they were doing. They were busy putting food on all the empty tables: olives, stacks of bread, various pickled items, vine rolls and salad. We realised later that you don’t have to eat anything on the table when you are arrive, and if you do they charge you for the lot. But we also ordered two additional items – some really good beans & rice, and another bizarre dish of stretchy cheese and polenta. It looked like baby sick and tasted to me like the cheese had gone off. Even the locals sitting next to us peered over at it in curiosity.
As it was still early, we walked across the street to the sea of bean bags we’d noticed earlier. It was basically a series of small cafes, all wanting you to smoke a water pipe in their section. All I wanted was a tea. But as we discovered, this humble order wasn’t enough to grant you a precious bean bag. Luckily, we came across the most mercenary of the bunch (who seemed to be able to corrale passersby simply by saying hello in 5 languages, even tho he knew none of them beyond this one word). He let me drink a mint tea and also eat a waffle smoothered in bananas, ice cream and chocolate sauce that we’d
bought at a nearby stand. This was only a taste of the haggling we knew we had to do if we wanted to get by in this town.
Next day, as I still wasn’t feeling well – we booked a tour to limit the amount of walking I’d have to do. It was our first tour of the trip, on a boat that cruised from the Golden Horn bay up the Bosphorous straight. With my sunhat on and light breeze coming off the
water, it wasn’t too hot and felt like a pretty classy way to travel. We passed by many historical buildings and also newer neighbourhoods. The commentary was pretty basic, but adequate. The city dates back to the 7th millenium BC, and was the seat of the Roman Empire for a time – the hub of all important trade routes between Europe and Asia. But you didn’t need tour guide to be impressed, it’s history was so obvious, so overt – you could see, smell and hear it for yourself. We made a couple stop offs – one on the Asia side, and I set foot for the first time in this new continent! We also walked up the Maiden Tower, which has a sort of Sleeping Beauty meets Rapunzel myth surrounding it. Now a restuarant, it still had some nice views.
Back on land, we opted to be dropped by the Spice Market. We went left when we should have gone right, and ended up in an adjacent bit where the locals stop for everything from gardening equipment to paper napikns. It was a busy place, with everyone carring their shopping and mopeds also making their way through the fray. We took refuge in the
first place we saw selling baklava, which was a great decision as it was delicious. I also came across a herbal shop and stocked up on echinacea and apricot kernal oil.
We eventually found our way to the actual Spice Market. Housed in a grand building, inside were two main avenues which were aflood with colour. Green, orange, red and yellow powedered spices were piled high in pyramid shapes. There was also herbal tea, dried fruit and Turkish delight, all in bulk. Chris had been raving about the rose flavoured
Turkish Delight, and found the least annoying/agreesive seller and bought a variety for us to try. I also found some handmade nettle soap. We were both really pleased with our purchases.
We sat outside the nearby Faith Mosque, eating Turkish Delight and watching people go by. It was a pretty relaxed vibe around the streets of Istanbul, with people lounging and talking. We crossed back over the Galata Bridge at sunset and Chris tried to capture this golden city in the golden light. For dinner we found a great art-deco styled place with live music downstairs serving meze (small dishes everyone at the table shares), which made me really happy as I’d been hoping to try these while we were here.
Our last morning in Istanbul, we only had until 1pm before making our way to the airport to catch our first flight of the trip so far. But before we left, I wanted to check out the main event: The Grand Bazaar!
Taking the tram to the nearest stop, we made our way through the surrounding streets selling textiles of all kinds – from fabric to simple t-shirts and socks, and even more formal wear like wedding dresses and traditional ceremonial garb. The strange thing was – all
the sellers were men, and all the shoppers were women. Surely (I thought) the best person to sell a ladies pant suit, or a bra – or a friggin’ wedding dress – is another woman! Chris found it odd too. The men in these streets had a kind of aloofness, a kind of very private clique. They all huddled around, smoking. When they spoke to each other it was mostly in low voices, like they were telling a secret. When we were noticed – it was always Chris who was addressed, not me. I know you can’t tell that much about a place or a people in only a few days – but the gender roles here were definitely different than what we were used to and rubbed both of us the wrong way.
Anyway, we entered the Grand Bazaar through the Beyazit gate (one of 22 entrances). Comprised of various sections, we had a map of the place – yet once inside, we realised it was practically a town unto itself. We got lost in about 10 minutes. And there’s nothing worse than looking like a naive tourist infront of some of the world’s shrewdest sellers. “Hey lady”, “Hi guy” they’d say as we passed, followed by some spiel about what they were selling. Most were easily ignored, but some were pretty surprising or funny. My favourite was a lamp seller who beckoned “But don’t you want to light up you life?” Good effort, I thought! But I did want to buy some harem trousers, and finally found someone with a good selection. I got him down from 45 to 35 lira (about 12 pounds). But as the hostel had warned us to offer half of whatever price was given – it didn’t really feel like a triumph.
We made our way outside (which took some time actually), only to find the first shop out the door selling wallets – something I felt Chris really needed. Over the last few weeks, Chris had become a walking currency exchange. Plus, everytime he sat down, he’d leave various coinage from all over Europe. And I won’t even go into the long drawn-out process when paying for things “On no, that’s a Forint, this one’s a Euro…” However, as luck would have it – this particular seller turned out to be insane. First thing he did? Pulled out a friggin lighter in an attempt to catch the wallet in Chris’ hand on fire! Literally taken aback, it began to make some sense as he giddily exclaimed: “See, real leather. No plastic!” There was no denying the quality, I suppose. We rummaged through this cardboard box full of wallets in all shapes and sizes and settled on one with lots of zippers. After turning down two further offers to “Try my test?”, Chris got him down from 50 to 35 lira. Not too bad.
We dashed back to the hostel to grab our bags, eating a cheap falafel wrap across from Hagia Sophia enroute. We left Istanbul on the what was possibly the world’s hottest and most crowded tram/metro all the way to the airport, seeing some of the suburbs along the way.
Though we’d been in Istanbul longer than many other cities up to this point – it felt like we’d barely scratched the surface of this unique, fascinating and historically rich city. Istanbul was our first taste of the exotic, something more of the East rather than the West. And it was good groundwork for our next destination…a city of newly build
castles in the sand…DUBAI.