ARCHIVE: Istanbul: A Whole New World

FIRST NIGHT AND DAY

Although delayed, the flight went well. I was at the point of tiredness where my eyes ached, considering my adventure with French trains the day before and lack of sleep, but stayed awake by running on travel excitement. We took an airport taxi from Atatürk Airport to our hostel, a nice place called Bada Bing tucked into a side street near Galata Tower. Our host, a calm, friendly dude named Volkan, explained how to get around (we’re within walking distance of everything we wanna see and do). We went out to explore the big shopping street around the corner from us. Thrilled with how cheap the lira is, we did a bit of shopping. I was pleased with being able to snag another album from a street performer, this time an older man rocking out on a long-necked string instrument (a tambur, I think). We made it to Taksim Square and ate and debated going to a jazz club, but decided going to bed and waking up early was best.

Coincidentally, a good friend of Lizzy’s was also in Istanbul! She told us about a free tour and we agreed to meet at the fountain by the Hagia Sophia. We found it without difficulty simply by following the tram line. We were heartily invited to one man’s carpet shop (I am not even kidding). A low fog embraced the city for most of the day, but the sites were still impressive. We went with our guide, a smiley fellow named Martin, to the Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, a small Turkish Bath, the Grand Bazaar, one smaller mosque, and the Sultanamet Mosque.

We were confronted at the Blue Mosque by an inspector from the Office of Tourism. Apparently our guide had no badge and was illegal. He quickly fabricated a story of just being hostel friends, and a few other group members hastily chimed in with details. The inspector didn’t believe us an inch but left us with a warning of fine and deportation. We left the Blue Mosque quickly.

Questionable legailty aside, Martin gave us a good tour. We ended at the Sultahamet Mosque, tipped him, and went for an absolutley delicious lunch at a nearby outdoor lokanta. I highly reccommend Turkish dolma (peppers and eggplant stuffed with rice and meat).

We four returned to the Blue Mosque and were quietly awed by the interior. It’s very easy to feel like you’re part of something bigger in such a place, even with other tourists milling about.

We stopped in a lamp shop and ooohed and ahhhed at the pretty colors. I could pick up a lot for my home interior in Istanbul.

Lastly, we ate and went in search of a hookah bar. It was a literal hole in the wall. I’m pretty sure we were the only tourists in the place. We made our way through two water pipes, one apple flavored and the other strawberry, and plenty of apple tea. We walked Abby back to her hostel and walked part of the way to ours before hailing a taxi. We came back and procrastinated planning for the morning. Sleep was a well-earned reward.

Hopefully we can follow up the riotous success of the first day with more adventures today!

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Pictures: flag flying near the Grand Bazaar, the lovely ceiling of the Blue Mosque, tea from the hookah bar, pretty pretty lamps, Sultahnamet Mosque, the Blue Mosque in fog, the view from Sultahnamet when the sky was clear, the fountain near the Hagia Sophia, and a joyous selfie in Taksim Square.

DAY TWO

We slept in a bit after the late return last night. Lizzy left to go with Abby to a few museums, and Kurt and I headed for the aqueduct. We wanted to see a 1,000 year-old structure. On the bridge, we fell prey to a scam: one of the shoeshiners walked by us and dropped his brush. Of course my good-person-reflexes kicked in and I picked it up, calling “Affedersiniz!” after him and handing it back. Before we could go, he had Kurt’s shoes on his little stand and was shining them under a non-ending flow of words. Suddenly his friend appeared and began toothbrushing my sneakers. Before we knew it, eighteen lira had been plucked out of my hands and thirty from Kurt’s (he was told he would pay for both of us). We left a tad dazed and only realized later, when we saw another man drop his brush, just how bad we’d been had. Later we learned that Lizzy had also been caught, probably by the same guy, but had only given him a lira. Point being, don’t pick up the brush. Just keep walking.

Further along the way, we strolled through a park and grabbed some of the circular sesame snacks called simit, sold at almost every corner. The sun was shining and the city was thrilling simply to look at and be in, now that we could really see it. We walked a looong way, all along the tram tracks before curving back north again and standing awed in the shadow of the aqueduct. Imagine, something that old! Just….wow.

Kurt and I walked guardedly through the Spice Market, staring appreciatively at this scene totally foreign to us but wary of our pockets. We visited the New Mosque and were humbled to watch a prayer session. The quiet mass of people rose and kneeled and bowed in unision at the calling of a man singing in the front. It was…lovely.

Munching on fish sandwiches, we made our way back to the hostel to meet with Abby and Lizzy again. They introduced us to a friend from their hostel, Bianca from South Africa. We got on the ferry to the Asian side and enjoyed a few hours walking around a normal city, without constantly being shouted at to buy something. We relaxed on the stunning waterfront and ate in a dockside restaurant. Our last event of the evening was to head for a Turkish Bathhouse.

It was certainly an experience! Men and women were of course separate. Naked, we were scrubbed and massaged and lathered by a pair of Turkish women who had clearly been doing this for a long time. It actually felt great. We plunged into a chilly pool and sweated put the last of our stress in a humid sauna before showering last. We felt great and went for drinks later.

Last day. Let’s do iiiittt.

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Pictures: selfie in front of the water on the Asian side, rainbow steps on the Asian side, a statue in the park by the Topalı palace, the aqueduct, a cute street doodle, a stand in the Spice Market, and a panorama of the shore from the Asian side.

THIRD (LAST) DAY

The morning started late for us, as we slept in and took our time getting ready to check out. The awesome desk guy, Volkan, let us leave our luggage in the staff only room. We headed for Galata Tower, hoping to take in the 360 view of Istanbul despite the cloud cover. I got some nice pictures before my fear of heights convinced me to head back down.

Here’s where the fun started: as I left, I spotted Lizzy still on the terrace and briefly considered telling her where I was going. Instead, I waved the thought away, positive that they’d come down the stairs to find me when they realized I had left. I planted myself outside the only entrance/exit of the tower and waited, confident that it’d be a brief interlude before we were joined up again and heading off to walk the coast of the Bosphorus.

So I waited. Five minutes.

Ten minutes.

Fifteen…twenty…thirty…

I started to worry and took a few trips around the base of the tower, wondering that I might possibly have missed them. After a brief mental debate, I decided the best course of action was to head back to the hostel and use the wifi to contact Kurt via Facebook and hope that he would see it with his data. On the way back down the street, I ran into Abby, who accompanied me and agreed that, logically, they would have come down the tower or would realize that the hostel was the most likely place to meet up once separated. I messaged Kurt, waited some more, then messaged a friend in Heidelberg for his number (because jeez, why didn’t we make sure everyone had everyone else’s number beforehand?!). He picked up after a few rings and he and Lizzy came to the hostel, where they told us how they had run all up and down the tower and checked the bathrooms and created a scene where they almost called the police because they thought someone had taken me. We laughed about it afterwards, of course, but it was an interesting plot twist to the morning.

Kurt and Lizzy were surprised but thrilled to see Abby again, as we had thought we wouldn’t see her again after parting ways on the Asian side.  She hadn’t seen Taksim Square yet, and we hadn’t seen it in daylight: thus, now that our separation episode had scuppered our plans to walk along the Bosphorus coast (we only had a few more hours before we needed to be at the airport and wouldn’t be able to cram it all in), we made a full circle by walking back up the street we had first traversed upon arrival in Istanbul. We got one more yummy Turkish meal, a few good selfies in Taksim Square, the last of the touristy trinkets we wanted to buy, and said goodbye to Abby again. We collected our luggage and bid Volkan adieu before getting on the metro to the airport.

…well, the adventure wasn’t quite over: yet again, getting home proved the hardest part of the trip. We only made it to our transfer before wriggling off the crowded metro line and deciding to take a taxi the rest of the way. Our taxi driver did us a huge solid by expertly navigating a labyrinth of backstreets to cut around a traffic blockade on the main highway. We rushed into the airport and through security and made it to our gate ten minutes before the specified boarding time. Of course we didn’t actually board for another half hour, but we were proud of our record speed.

I chatted with a German man on the ride home. We landed in Frankfurt and were let back into Germany without complications. The problems started when we attempted to get on a train back to Heidelberg: we missed our connection, somehow, and ended up calling a taxi, because the only other way home would have been with two train changes and over two hours of waiting in between trains and an arrival time of 3:30 am. Instead, our taxi driver was very nice and got us home quickly and safely. I crashed in my bed, exhausted and dreaming of a chance to go back to Turkey to explore the beautiful country, master the language, and stop for a few more days in Istanbul.

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Photo: A panorama view from the Galata Tower. Count the mosques on the horizon. Imagine the call to Friday prayer rising and falling over the shouts and bustle of the city. Imagine it, and start planning how and when you’re going to go back.

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