One big step for Oli, no step at all for mankind: for the first time in my life, I see and step on Asian soil. At least according to geography. Between seeing and touching, a couple of days passed, during which I had time to discover the European side of Turkey’s largest city, Istanbul.
The ride on Egnatia Odos, the East-West axis in Northern Greece, and current incarnation of the Roman Via Egnatia, I arrived in Istanbul last Wednesday. The ride was executed by an interesting project of a Greek travel agency and a Turkish bus company. The goal is to bring these two countries closer to one another in order to improve the relations between the countries, which share a very interesting and not always peaceful common history.
So smooth went the ride, the main entertainment where cities with names such as Profitis and Drama, which relate really well to recent events in Greece. More interesting was the arrival in Istanbul. I was told to get off the bus at the first stop in the Otogar, the giant bus station in Istanbul, in order to catch a Servis (a minibus), which would bring me to the desired part of the city. After a short wait, the bus left for what I thought would be Sultanahmet, where I had my accommodation reservation. But no, suddenly there was an announcement: “Sultanahmet, Tramvay!”. I am glad, I understood that much, such that I knew it was time to get off the bus and catch a tram. The Erasmus students chose to catch a Taxi, while I still do not like Taxis, such that I opted for the tram. Confused, I stood in front of the ticket vending machine trying to figure out how much money I had to put in the machine and what I would get in return. A young Turkish fellow helped out, providing me a jeton which allows for a single use of the tram. He even explained me, where I had to get off the tram, which was very nice. The rest of the evening I spent in the common room of the hostel.
My sleep was abruptly interrupted at 4am. Somebody from the staff entered the room noisily and switched on the light. What had happened? Unfortunately, the hot water pipe broke directly in front of my room and the two guys had to clean up the mess and were checking out, how far the water had run into our room. Fortunately not very far. The result was a little less pleasant though: no hot water in the morning for showers! Luckily, the staff reacted quickly and had a repairman on-site during the morning, such that the hot water was running again in the afternoon.
The Agora Guesthouse and Hostel lies in the quarter of Sultanahmet, the historical part of town, where one can find the most important tourist attractions and sights. To discover Sultanahmet and the surrounding parts of the city was my goal for Thursday and Friday. Things I definitely wanted to do included a visit to the Blue Mosque, the Hagia Sofia, Topkapi Palace, the Grand Bazar, a cruise on the Bosphorus and further impression of what lies beneath the tourist sites.
First thing on my itinerary was the Blue Mosque, due to its closeness to the hostel, which was 5 minutes on foot. Once I arrived at the mosque, I was shocked to find an immensely long queue. But the queue was moving rather quickly, such that I entered the mosque within 10 minutes. One detail which left me wondering: the directions at the entrance of the mosque clearly stated that one had to wear appropriate clothing, which included a headscarf for the women. But only very few women were actually wearing one. What is the reason for this divergence? A lack of respect on the tourists’ side or is it more tolerance on the mosque’s side? On the other hand, the mosque is a very impressive building, still leaving almost no free space to stand due to the inrush of tourists…
During the day, I visited a few more mosques, which are no less impressive, but much less visited. Anyway: in Istanbul, there is almost no place from which one cannot see a mosque, resulting in a sort of acoustical prayer carpet, during the Muslim prayer times.
Due to the long queue at the entrance of the Hagia Sofia, I decided to visit the museum and Topkapi Palace on Friday. The recommendation of a young Turk to visit the tourist places early in the morning or after 2pm was a very good one, due to the cruise ship tours between about 11am and 2pm, all the rest he produced is less worthy to recite. Anyway, I did not wan’t to buy any carpet nor drink tea with him nor go on a free sight seeing tour, just because I apparently was a nice guy. This phenomenon is unfortunately much too common in Istanbul, especially when traveling as a single male. People invite you for tea only to sell you a carpet later, they invite you to a beer only to rip you off afterwards. My recommendation: even if the person seems trustworthy, don’t accept the hospitality in Istanbul at all. This behavior led to quite some suspicion on my side and my positive image of the Turks is quite shattered, despite the help I had gotten from the young fellow helping me with the tram and other encounters. One just never knows. Hopefully this negative image will be reduced to some people in Istanbul only.
Besides these unpleasant encounters, Istanbul has a lot of positive things to offer: sights in abundance, a cuisine which is striking, an openness towards strangers and many nooks and crannies where one can discover the unexpected. One such unexpected thing I discovered during my wanderings around the city were old wooden houses. Sometimes restored for touristic purposes, they are also to be found in the less visited parts of the city in their original state, which is also sometimes concerning.
As absolutely impressive I perceived the vast labyrinth of the Grand Bazaar. In the meantime very much focused on tourists, it still has a few corners on the backside, where people deal with regular textiles big style. Even the tourist shops with their oriental touch offer to me my entrance into the Oriental world. Adding to that the impressions of the Grand Bazaar and the impressions from the Topkapi Palace, I get hungry for more later on during my journey.
On Friday, I let the visit to the Hagia Sofia musem and the Topkapi Palace follow. In the afternoon, I went on a Bosphorus cruise. By doing so, I made a Turkish salesman happy: he was selling private tours near the pier and since offer and price stood in good relation, I accepted to go on his tour. I was immediately stuffed into a minivan and brought to the pier of the private cruise ships, which look like refurbished fisher boats. Since the private ships are much smaller, there were only about 20 people on the boat and I had a good view on the sights which passed by on the shores. Along the way, I had a funny discussion with two Egyptian brothers on a business trip. According to their statements, they live in the Dominican Republic and Canada respectively and manufacture diapers for the Caribbean market…
In the evening at the hostel, I had an interesting exchange with an Indian and his son. He has been traveling for many years now and sees modernization of the traveling worls as a bad development, since mostly US and Asian travelers (but also Europeans such as I) bring along their electronic equipment in form of netbooks, tablets and smartphones and spend their time playing with the electronics instead of interacting with one another. It thus happens, that up to 10 or 15 travelers sit in a common room of a hostel, none of the talking to another. The Indian makes use of his prosperity, mainly gained through working 32 years for Air India, to show his son of 18 years the world and to make him see, that he cannot take everything he has for granted.
On Saturday, finally the time had come: I set my foot on Asian soil for the first time in my life! I crossed the Bosphorus on a the regular boat from Eminönü to Haydarpasa, the train station from which my train to Ankara leaves on Sunday. Without a city map and a clear plan where to go, I started wandering about on the Asian side of Istanbul.
It was quite a refreshing experience to visit the city without all the touts and just being ignored by the locals. For all those looking for a quite place to eat local food without stepping into some touristic place, which tend to rip you off, the Southern half of the city offers a reasonable alternative right off the pier at Kadiköy. Before I started hunting for food, I found a barber standing in the door of his shop waiting for customers. He seemed sympathetic, so I asked him for a haircut. Using my hands, I explained to him, how I wanted my hair cut. In a for me unusual way, he started shortening my gray hair. After a while, he stopped to show me the result, which looked satisfactory for me. He then pointed to the washbowl in front of me. What did he want to know? It turned out, that he offered me a hair-wash. Again a new experience not having to lay back to get your hair washed, but to bend over to the front. He did a nice job washing my hair and rinsing it, such that I gladly paid the 10 TL, about 4 euros for the service.
On my discovery tour, I suddenly hit the shore of the Bosphorus on a nice promenade, which I followed back to the pier at Kodiköy. Since I really like the atmosphere in the Asian part of Istanbul, I went back through the streets to find some food. I had a meal including a mains, two drinks (fresh orange juice and tea) and dessert (baklava) in 4 stops along the way.
Strengthened, I headed back to Europe, this time I took the ship to Besiktas from where I walked back to Kabatas to catch the füniküler a second time to head up to Taksim square. I followed the main shopping drag in Istanbul to the Galata tower. Nearby I had another first for Turkey and the Middle East: I tried Sahlep, hot sweet milk, spiced with powder from the Sahlep plant and in this case cinnamon. Delicious!
Since the Turkish celebrate Republican Day on October 29, all the streets and buildings are decorated with Turkish flags. On the way, I came across the beginnings of a motorbike parade. Most important thing in Turkey: it has to be noisy, so the riders honked their horns and let their engines roar. Unfortunately, the fireworks for the night are cancelled due to the recent earthquake in Eastern Turkey…