The edge of the world

Trip Start Aug 18, 2006
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Wednesday, November 8, 2006

The much anticipated arrival of my beloved began another blissful five-day break from being a 'traveller' and becoming a 'tourist' (a distinction without a difference, as far as I can tell). Over the course of this short holiday we managed to get a taste of all sides of Istanbul, from the Blue Mosque and Topkapi Palace to Whirling Dervishes, from a boat tour of the Bosphorous straight- the dividing line between Europe and Asia (or 'the world' and 'the rest'), to the inadvertant discovery of a brothel and a drugs den. 

We toured Istanbul's grand bazaar and spice market, souqing up the ambience (sorry) and spent the afternoons enjoying tea and nargile (the turkish word for the ubiquitious middle-eastern water-pipe which you might have heard called 'shisha' (egyptian) 'hookah' or 'hubble-bubble' or any of about a million other names). Apparently due to the ratio of tobacco to fruit molasses, the filtration effect of the water and fact that non-smokers tend to like it more than smokers, this does not technically count as 'smoking'. Wha' eva.
 
The Blue Mosque is impressive, more so from the outside than the inside since the interior is really just a large open space. It has six minarets, and at the time it was built the only other mosque to boast so many was the one in Mecca. As soon as it was completed, work began on building a seventh minaret in Mecca. Keeping up with the Jones's requires serious investment in the world of competitive minaret construction. The mosque is brought to life by the ever-present seagulls circling above it. As far as I know they havn't the aquired the mythological status of the ravens on the tower of London, but being small and mobile they seem to accentuate the hugeness and permanence of the building. 

Topkapi Palace we toured in the rain, which may have slightly marred the experience, but it was still an impressive sight. The bit that made it worth the entrance fee though was a single exhibit in the treasury museum. A single 96carat diamond, about the size of a fist. In terms of sparkliness it ranks about 37 on the list of the top 38 things you should never show your girlfriend near her birthday. Beyond this, though, it was bought at the best price for a diamond I've ever heard of. Found, uncut and unrecognisable as a diamond on a rubbish heap by a vagabond of some discription, it was sold to a pedlar for three spoons. Eventually someone realised what it was and news of its existence reached the ruler of the day (which day? which ruler? why don't I take notes?) who promptly requisitioned it, almost certainly for less than its stated value in cutlery.
 
The whirling dervishes...   do you care about whirling dervishes? .... should I skip straight to the drugs and prostitutes? .... The 'proper' whirling dervishes hang out in a beautiful  monastery near the Galata tower (yet more impressive buildings), where everyday at 3 o'clock you can watch them perform their ritual. The diffference between the 'proper' dervishes and the 'tourist' dervishes is that the former ask you not to applaud, since theirs is a real religious ceremony. Anyway, they process in to the ceremonial space (stage, to you and me), each wearing a brown thimble-shaped hat, symbolising the tombstone of the ego, a black cape symbolising its shroud and a white shirt and skirt which symbolise clothes that look good whirling. Also shoes with very little grip and good ankle support...

After some preliminary processional circuits of the stage with intermittent reciprocal bowing, they lined up to one side and removed the shrouds. They then took turns to be blessed by the head dervish, before setting off at a gentle spin, one hand held out palm up, the other palm down, symbolising that they receive everything from God but keep nothing for themselves. It was actually quite a restrained and spiritual performance, and the pamphlet explaining the history and form of the ceremony was a useful distraction during the boring bits (sorry, 'guide') when it became clear that none of them were going to stagger and fall over like you knew they should and secretly hoped they would.

The bosphorus tour was just a boat trip really, though going under the Bosphorus bridge was quite cool and getting a feel for the way the city just spreads out forever on both continents. Istanbul has a population of around fifteen million and is about 80km across. Most people, us and the Pope included, only really visit Sultanahmet and Taksim, each about 2km square.

One evening we went to a concert (think Barbican not Wembley) of a turkish pipe player and his band, who judging by the sell-out crowd was something of a turkish star. The music was pleasant, light and airy. It seemed to get a bit samey after a while though, except for one song when the pipe-player started grunting and moaning down the microphone like a schoolboy who's been asked to 'sound dramatic', or possibly a sopwith camel. We were left a little cool by the experience, though half the audience gave a standing ovation, so obviously for those who like this kind of thing, this is the kind of thing they like.

After the concert, feeling that whirling dervishes and pipe virtuoso's were enough improving culture for one day, we went in search of a pool table. Following directions from increasingly shady characters we found ourselves drawn ever deeper into the shadows and alleyways of Taksim's underbelly. Passing a building with a grimy, unilluminated 'hotel' sign outside, in an otherwise nondescript and narrow alley, I observed
-odd place to put a hotel. bet they don't get too much business
because I am still charmingly niaive about the ways of the world. And when Yolana pointed out the scantily clad women sitting at the window (for which of course I was very grateful) I still didn't catch on
-so that hotel's even next to a brothel! Nightmare!
-Tim. I think the 'hotel' is the brothel.
-Ah. Shall we move on?
We felt we'd probably gone too far from the main strip (if thats not too apt a word) at this point, but the roads we'd been on ran parallel to it so we just had to take a left to be back on track. Doing so we found an Irish bar and asked the proprieter if he had a pool table
-No, I think 'Rich' up the road has one, upstairs, but I wouldn't... they're a bit... It's a bit of a shady place

Thinking about it, that probably should have been warning enough, but maybe he just wanted us to come and drink in his bar. Anyway, we proceeded to Rich, a nightclub apparently, but that didn't concern us. By  the time we'd climbed to the third story, pushing aside the table that blocked the last stairway, and knocked on the permanently locked door to the 'games' room, any sounds from the nightclub were extinguished. The door was opened by the most obviously stoned person I've ever seen- emaciated, unsteady and with eyes unnaturally dilated. We avoided staring at her arms as she invited us in and told us the table would be 10Lira for the evening.
-That's too much! 5 Lira! (automatic reaction after long enough in Turkey)
-OK (apparently even Turks can't bargain when mashed)

The pool table was in a separate room from the two girls who seemed to be in charge of opening the door, (who therefore one may presume worked there), and one or two other randoms who came and went through the night. So, apart from having to open the window to let in some refreshing smog from outside and feeling a little woozy by the time we left, we  played undisturbed (though increasingly bad) pool for the rest of the night.
On the 15th I escorted my sweetheart back to the airport and, after tearful farewells, set about leaving a city now tainted with the existential presence of 'absent-Yolana'. I gathered my things and made my way to the ferryport, where I caught the last boat of the day accross the sea of Marmara to the small town of Bandirma. With its unpaved, unlit streets and depressing air of, well, irrelevence to the rest of the world really, it was just the place for me to indulge my black mood. (At least until I saw a man vending, among other things, rotisserie sheeps-heads, which cheered me up no end)
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