Istanbul, Part One

Monday, November 23, 2009

Arriving in Istanbul from Athens was pretty painless, but when I first heard the call the prayer… wow… I really knew I was somewhere else. Despite the different alphabet and such, Greece was still very much part of Europe. They had Spar shops and they use euros and it all felt somehow familiar after having been through at least a dozen or so other European cities in the last five months. (Five months! Wow! It's almost half over.) Despite the geographic technicality that much of Istanbul, including all the bits I’ve seen so far, is still in Europe, it really does feel different. Like I mentioned in Russia, the faces are different – all dark hair and brown eyes. I suspect I stand out – I can’t imagine what it would be like if I was blonde. (I can't imagine what it will be like in China...)

I’ve seen some of the big sights – the Aya Sofia, the Blue Mosque, the Grand Bazaar, but they’re actually not what stick with me. Yes, the Aya Sofia was big and impressive, but I think I’ve reached my limit on big impressive buildings.

Obligatory shot of the Aya Sofia

I actually liked the Blue Mosque better, though even there it was odd because while the Aya Sofia started out as a church and then was converted to a mosque, and is now a museum (and scaffold-storage facility, it seems), the Blue Mosque is still a functioning place of worship. This made me feel a bit awkward standing around gawping. And because it’s a mosque, you have to take your shoes off before going in, women are asked to cover their heads. I bought a scarf for this purpose – I figured it won’t be the last “covered head” site of my trip. But I was amazed at the number of women wandering around with uncovered heads. I mean how hard is it to make the effort, people? Honestly, grow up and grab some class.

Inside the Blue Mosque

So those were the big impressive buildings. More my speed were the Grand Bazaar and the Spice Bazaar. Both are big covered market areas absolutely crammed with little shops – the LP says the Grand Bazaar has over 4,000 shops and several kilometers of lanes, and I can believe it. What makes it particularly tiresome is that every one of them has a guy or two outside trying to solicit your business. “Hello! Ola! Bonjour! Espanga? Australia? Canada? Canada! How are you today Canada? Would you like to come in? Special sale today Canada! Wait, come back!” It was really tiring.

One of the larger “lanes” in the Grand Bazaar

I preferred the Spice Bazaar because it’s smaller, and most of the shops sell sweets. And here I have to say that the Turks really love their sweets (That, and their kebaps. In fact, I may have to write a whole post on Turkish fast food…). In some ways, it’s like they are my people with all the sweet treats on offer everywhere (It’s really too bad this comes at a time when I’m rapidly expanding out of my tired wardrobe and really feel like I need to get a handle on both the deteriorating clothing situation and the expanding thighs situation). If only I actually liked Turkish Delight… I must have walked past at least a metric tonne of it in the last three days. I did at least buy a bit of that round “shredded wheat” ‘n’ pistachio style baklava stuff that was very nice.

A typical stall in the Spice Bazaar

After a day or two of sights like these I decided I needed a bit of unstructured wandering time. This coincided with a desire to look around for some new clothes (see above) and a need to stock up on reading material for my overnight bus trip to Cappadocia. Luckily, there’s just the spot for this across the Galata bridge in the Beyoğlu area.

The Galata bridge, which is filled, end to end on both sides, with guys fishing. I estimate that there were perhaps a thousand rods in the water at a time, and I never saw a single one pull out a fish bigger that your finger. Still, they make for a good photo.

I had a very long day of wandering, looking in bookshops, trying (unsuccessfully) to find clothing, and soaking things in. It was fun, overwhelming, satisfying, frustrating and tiring. I did manage to find three or four English bookshops (though nowhere that stocked the LP Israel. It looks like, as with the LP Turkey, I’ll be buying my guide book in the airport on the way to my destination.) and I bought a couple of books, and some supplies for the bus.

As I was walking back to the bridge I found the the most excellent Hardware Bazaar. Ok, that’s perhaps not the official name for it, but what else would you call a street filled with stalls selling plumbing fixtures, power tools, locks, generators, and other home-reno supplies? Some stalls were very well-organized, and some were… less so.

Lacking in sense of order, but colourful.

And right next to the Hardware Market, the Fish Market, complete with restaurants selling fish that must have been exceptionally fresh.

There were about twenty stalls like this one, right along the water.

From there I walked back across the bridge towards my hostel where the shuttle would pick me up at 6:30 pm to take me to the giant, crazy bus station . All day it had been hazy and I couldn’t tell whether it was fog or pollution or smoke, but it gave everything a strange, filtered kind of look, and by about 4:00 pm it had drained all the energy out of me. All I wanted was a nap. All I didn’t want was a 12 hour overnight bus ride. Guess which one I got?

And now I’m really into it: I’m in Asia! I crossed the Bosphorus last night on a bus that seemed to crawl through the fog, and paused at some very odd Turkish truck stops. Luckily, the Shoestring Cave Pension is friendly and reasonably priced and let me into my quiet, private room (which is carved right into the rock) in time for me to have a much-needed three hour nap.

Tonight it’s a touristy “Turkish Night” which promises supper, unlimited drinks (!), belly dancing, whirling Dervishes and a late late end to a long day. Tomorrow I’ve taken the plunge and booked an outrageously expensive hot air balloon ride over the crazy Cappadocian landscape (it starts at 5:30am – bleah), followed by a long day of touring the area, and perhaps a Turkish hamman (bath) to top it all off tomorrow night. It’ll be a big day, so stay tuned.


Gillian said...

A balloon ride...I'm jealous!!

I must defend all the non head scarf wearing women you saw. I, too, bought a scarf to cover my head when entering the mosque but was instructed by the female attendant that I only need cover my shoulders. I thought it weird at the time too as I saw other western women with heads covered...but I took the advice of the attendant. So maybe those women just got different instruction than you.

FLF said...

I hope you enjoy the balloon ride as much as I did mine... only not so exotic for me... over the desert in Sedona.

Viviane said...

Balloon! YAY!!!!!!

Thank you for posting Pam, its great to know what you're up to. Always a pleasure reading your words.

Unknown said...

It is nice to hear you back to your old travel blogging-self.

What? No people pics in Turkey?

You talk about the interesting places you stay, but seldom include a pic. What about the cave?

Can't wait for the Balooning pics.

Keep on Truckin'


Pam said...

@Gillian - I take your point, but in this case there were large signs posted all over the entrance requesting that everyone take off their shoes and that women cover their heads. No excuses at the Blue Mosque.

@Rob - There will be people pics associated with hot air ballooning. And I'll try to throw in a pic of the cave room too.

Anonymous said...

Turkish Delight? Sounds lovely.

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