Tuesday, January 22, 2008

A tale of two continents, and one city

I've just arrived back from my very last (!!!) adventure in Europe before heading back to NZ. I still can't quite believe that this time tomorrow I'll be well on my way back home... Just sustaining myself in the belief that it's only a temporary sojourn in the southern hemisphere before returning topside.

Anyway, Istanbul was absolutely fab, I loved it. Exiting the miles-away-from-the-city Sabiha Gochen airport was somewhat traumatic. It began by queuing in the near-dark of the airport at an empty visa booth - a small man with a briefcase came bustling up after about 10 minutes of general confusion. Contrary to expectations, no-one spoke a word of English and I don't speak any Turkish, so it was quite a mission trying to find the right bus. Communicating with the bus driver consisted of him rubbing his two index fingers together in a way which was presumably meant to be meaningful, but really did nothing for me, so I was a tad concerned I would be stranded at the airport forever. 45 minutes in, however, the bus going my way finally appeared and from then on it was plain sailing.

Plain sailing right past one of those little tableaux which make you glad to be a traveller. Think of the coolest thing you could ever see on a motorway... If you imagined a guy selling bread arguing with a guy selling about 8 large child-sized inflatable spidermen with a traffic jam swirling past them, then you and I are on the same spiritual plane. Seriously, this just about beats rollercops for the COOLEST SIGHT EVER!!! Later on there was a dude selling bagels looped around a stick - I like to speculate that perhaps he was entertaining passing vehicles by catching lobbed bagels for their amusement.

Anyway, I met up with Andy with no problems, and after a late dinner (mmm... Turkish food... although it was actually no better than what you'd get in NZ, and the hummus - which I only saw featured on one menu - was worse, very sesame-oily and funnily-textured...) it was to bed for a very tired moi.

In the morning, it was up and at them to Hagia Sophia, an ancient Greek-Orthodox-church-turned-mosque-turned-museum. This was reckoned to be a spectacular sight, but I would rate it probably as okay. Well, actually, it was pretty rateable in its own right, and as the first stop on our itinerary, but it was blown away by some of the other sights still to come in Istanbul. It was huge, unfortunately marred by scaffolding inside, and featured a few lovely old Greek mosaics. From the outside, it's squat and quite unlovely.

Next up was the Blue Mosque, which is also called something else but I can't remember what. I was fooled by the signs into donning a headscarf - allegedly compulsory, but I swear I was the only western woman to sport one, and all the genuine mosque-goers brought their own, so I felt like a real twat. Twattishness was worth it, however, because it was simply amazing. Every inch was tiled exquisitly. The only grumble was that we couldn't enter the fenced-off zone, which appeared to be 'muslim only' although I must say that at least 50% of those wandering inside it seemed to have taking photos much further up the agenda than praying.

After lunch, we headed for the Grand Bazaar, which was actually not at all what I expected. I'd pictured a real old-school marketplace, with little stalls and people crying their wares to passers-by. Instead, it was filled with little booths - essentially just tiny shops, more like a mall than something out of the 17th century or what have you. They were also... not rude exactly... but quite put out if you didn't respond to initial attempts to get you to stop and examine their wares. In the Bazaar, at least, they didn't bother chasing after you, but if you ignored them, they would call out things like "no thankyou" or "funny people" to let you know that, in their eyes, you'd been rude.

This low-level hassling was endemic to Istanbul. In one of the most annoying features, taxi drivers (driving their bright yellow, unmistakable cabs) would invariably beep when passing you by, slow down and shout 'taxi!' - as though you would never have seen them otherwise. Restaurants and shops would try and pull you in off the street - often featuring phrases such as 'your money please' (subtle) and, while on my own, I did get followed quite a way by a guy trying to sell me (undoubtedly fake) 'Carcharel' and 'DKNY' perfume - the price of which dropped astoundingly rapidly when I just said 'no thanks' and kept walking. But, you know, it wasn't that bad and I wouldn't let it put you off going. I didn't really have the confidence to start haggling and try to buy something - there was nothing I particularly wanted, for starters. Some of the pottery available was stunning, but I was too concerned about transporting it back to NZ in one piece to really go there, and carpets and so on wouldn't fit in my luggage anyway. In any case, I'm absolutely horrible at any sort of financial negotiation - even saying no to a hard sell when I'm totally not interested is hard for me, so I think I did quite well in avoiding unwanted buying let alone getting a good deal!

We also called by the Egyptian/Spice market, which seemed more like the image I had in my head of a Turkish market - very bustling, noisy and crowded, with lots of Turkish people in situ and colourful stalls overflowing with spices as well as souvenirs. In fact, the Turkish lads I had lunch with - of which more later - announced that they had called past the Egyptian market on the way to lunch and picked up some Turkish Delight for dessert. In fact, one of them made the other one show me proof positive of this excursion, bless. This little encounter - fun with the locals! - reinforced that this is somewhere that actual Turkish people go - and that they really eat Turkish Delight! (bleeugh)

We rounded out the day with a ferry ride to the Asian side - first ferry trip between continents, woohoo! The ferry was very fast and, for 1.30 lira (about 60p), excellent value for money. If you just want to take a spin on the sea and don't much care where you go, just hop on a ferry, wander about a bit and come back. Tourist boat trips are, in my experience, unbearably dull, and are bound to be overpriced. Our plan was to find the Bosphorus bridge and walk from Asia to Europe - with suitable photo ops on the way. Sadly, this was not to be, as, after 45 minutes of walking, we passed under the bridge but couldn't find where to actually get on it, as it soared high above us. By this time it was well and truly dark, and so we called it a day without ever standing in two continents at once (boo!).

Once again, it was early to bed for me - after a dinner that lingered on until midnight, that is. I think I probably disappointed Andy a tad by not heading out to sample Istanbul's nightlife on a Saturday night, but I was just so tired. Plus we needed to be up at a reasonable hour - well, half past ten in my case - to check out Topkapi Palace on the morrow.

Topkapi was well worth a visit, and you should definitely pay the extra charge to see the harem as well. The audio guide, on the other hand, mostly stated the obvious - 'we are in the bath room, this room was used as a bath for the sultans...' and so forth, so maybe give that a miss. Again, fabulous decor - Islamic tiling really is to die for - and the grounds were lovely as well. It featured the most wonderful views out across the Bosphorus and/or Sea of Marmara (geographical detail fails me...) In the warm winter's sun (freezing in the shade...) you could really imagine strolling the terraces in the days of the sultans, looking out over a view that has undoubtedly changed hugely in terms of built architecture, but remains the same as far as the wonderful water and coastline goes. It also included a fabulous treasury of the Sultans, featuring huge diamonds, fantastic jewelled Koran covers, scabbards, 400-year-old carpets and garments as well as the interesting collection of relics. Want to see an imprint of Mohammed's footprint? Abraham's cooking pot? Joseph's turban? Mohammed's beard? Moses's staff? Well of course you can see them all in Istanbul. Far be it from me to hint that not all of these might be the geniune article...

After lunch, we took in the Basilica Cistern, a Roman-built water tank from I think about 400 AD. I should note that, as far as I can tell, all attractions in Istanbul command a flat entry fee of 10 lira. This is great value for Topkapi or the Chora church. For the Basilica, not so much. The old Roman columns stretching up out of illuminated pools are impressive, certainly, and the silent grandeur of the place is awe-inspiring - but really, a brief look and a few snaps are enough here. We spent a bit longer, seeking our 10 lira's worth, but there's not really a lot in 'added value' to be had there.

For our evening's entertainment, we walked across the bridge from Sultanahmet to... whatever the other side is called... up through Taksim - which seemed to be a major shopping district, mostly populated by locals, and all the way to Galatasaray's stadium to watch the football. This was the most intimidating scene of our Istanbul trip - thousands of het up fans, and I was one of the very few women. In the queue for tickets (and 'queue' is a vast, vast overstatement) we witnessed much aggressive pushing and shoving, Andy - as he discovered shortly thereafter - had his camera pickpocketed, and I had my ass grabbed several times before deciding to get myself out of there and let him deal with it. The game itself was akin to attending some sort of cult gathering - okay, special chants and songs are common to all football matches, but it's not nicknamed 'Hell' stadium for nothing. Most creepy was when a drumbeat and eerie 'ohmmmm'-like chant fired up, in response to which the fans held their scarves aloft and actually bowed down rhymically in a Wayne's World-esque "We're not worthy" gesture before their team. I wouldn't have minded, but Galatasaray - even though they won - were pretty crap! I swear they and their opponents spent the majority of the match writhing about on the ground in mock pain after every tackle. On the plus side, I did learn that Turkish for 'boo!' is a very bovine 'yooooou'. Sounds like a noise Paul would make, frankly.

Andy left at about the time I was getting myself out of bed for the day on Monday morning, leaving me to explore the city for the last day on my own. Yeah, I was a little nervous about checking out the city on my own, but actually, with the exception of the above-mentioned perfume seller, I didn't get hassled at all. I don't know whether this is because I headed out to the 'burbs to check out a hard-to-find church or whether I look Turkish enough to pass when on my own, but whatever, it was good. Said church was Chora - an early 14th century edifice filled with amazing frescoes and mosaics, many more than in the Hagia Sophia and well worth the trek, especially since there were few fellow tourists there to spoil the experience. The guard at the gate also made me giggle by telling me, a couple of minutes in, that I must have slept in a bag of sugar 'cause I was so sweet.

Okay, I can see that some people might write this sort of thing off as sexual harrassment, and I can admit that I have been given the hard sell in clubs by Turkish men in the past - the dating equivalent of 'come buy my carpet', perhaps - but I found it kind of sweet and cheesily inoffensive. Certainly a step up from the standard Western guy's "nice tits" - well, if he's filled with drunken overconfidence, that is. I didn't really sense any disrespect from it either. Maybe there is a cultural perception that Western women are up for it, I don't know, but it just seemed as if they enjoyed complimenting women, and who am I to argue with that?

This leads me to the two guys who rescued me from the perfume seller - apparently his magic bottles just contain water, who'da thunk it? - and invited me to lunch. I judged that a cafe in broad daylight was perfectly acceptable and passed a pleasant lunch chatting with them, with a few compliments thrown in, although nothing too full-on. It was interesting getting their insights into Turkish culture - they weren't from Istanbul originally, and in their opinion, the city was far too money-orientated. In the east, so they said, people were disinterestedly friendly and hospitable, and I certainly found these two to be that - we had a lovely lunch and there was no mention of carpet shops or anything else that would suggest they had an ulterior motive in dining with me. I did, nonetheless, feel it was prudent to decline their offer to take tea in their apartment. I'm sure they were perfectly straight up guys, but a girl's gotta look after herself.

Finally, then, it was a (thankfully hassle-free) shuttle bus back to the airport and away from Istanbul, and I was very sorry to leave. Andy and I discussed whether we could ever live there - he thought no, based on the street-side hassling, but I held out for the idea that things would be different from a local perspective, and I think my solo wanderings proved me right - no-one bothered me out of the tourist districts, and people were friendly and welcoming without trying to sell me anything. I'd love to go back, not just to Istanbul, but to the rest of Turkey.

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