Bazaar time in Istanbul

Trip Start Jun 20, 2010
1
24
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Trip End Nov 20, 2010


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Flag of Turkey  , Istanbul,
Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Accidently riding into Istanbul
I was starting to get excited as I woke up only about 140km from the center of Istanbul. I decided that I would head to the last town on the map before Istanbul and leave the final 35km for the next day. This was my plan however I was soon to discover just how big the urban sprawl of Istanbul is. I had a great day riding and was making good progress, I reached the town I had earmarked and set about searching for a Hotel or Motel. Often the cheap places are on the outskirts so I decided the best bet was to continue through the town center to the other side and find somewhere to stay there. Usually this would have been a pretty safe bet however today I was not so lucky. I was riding along the busy main street through the middle of town when all of a sudden without warning the shops stopped and I found myself on a busy duel carriageway. It was starting to get dark, ironically there was a wood i could camp in along side the road but I hadn't bothered buying any food as i was so bust looking for accommodation, so had to continue.

The duel carriage way went on for about 8km and then deposited me in another busy town. I decided as it was starting to really get dark now I would ask some of the shopkeepers where I could find a hotel. After asking around the consensus was that there was a hotel called the Vienna Hotel further down the road. However the worrying part was how much further down the road it was. Each time I asked I was told it’s 2km, it’s 10km, it’s 5.5km so that every time I thought I was almost there someone would tell me to keep going. Eventually I found a couple of more reliable people who confirmed I was still about 7km away. By this time it was completely dark and it had become apparent that I had inadvertently already entered the suburbs of Istanbul. This was not what I had been expecting, I had hoped to see a big sign, "Welcome to Istanbul" which I would then photograph myself by and have a little celebration. Luckily as i had now reached the edge of the Istanbul transport system the roads were nicely lit so weaving in and out of the chaos, that is Istanbul traffic, at night, wasn’t quite as dangerous as it could have been. I did eventually find the hotel, it was 20km away from where I started asking (and was told it was 2km) leaving me only 15km from the center of Istanbul.  I was amazed firstly that Istanbul is so big, the outskirts start 45km from the center (I had picked this route as it required the least riding in the suburbs in other places they extent much further from the center). However I was also amazed that I had to ride for 20km in to Istanbul to reach the first hotel (very strange considering even tiny villages will usually have one).

My blood was still pumping from the traffic weaving exploits and when I finally calmed down it suddenly sunk in how close I was to finally reaching Istanbul. I know it doesn’t sound that exciting but ever since starting my trip when people asked me where I was heading I would reply Istanbul. In fact I can distinctly remember having this conversation with someone is Helsinki who couldn't get over the fact I was heading so far. It was a great feeling but at the same time kind of sad as I knew that I would soon be reaching my destination and would not have much cycling left to do. The next day I had a lazy start as I knew that in only 15km time I would be at a hostel in Istanbul and not have to consider cycling for a good few days. I was also looking forward to seeing a friend who had randomly decided to come to Istanbul hoping he might happen to be there at the same time as me (luckily I was going to overlap with him for a couple of days at least). Istanbul traffic is very interesting, most people drive and given the size of the city this means there are a lot of cars on the road. Everyone is also keen to get where they are going as fast as possible and I would describe the typical driving style as 'rather aggressive’. The situation is not helped by the myriad of guys on scooters who launch themselves into the tiniest of gaps and out in front of cars without a care in the world. I discovered that these guys are usually pretty good at what they do and it is often quite fun to tag along behind one. It’s certainly speeds up your journey, albeit whilst slightly increasing the danger element. I later found that the most important thing you should know about Turkish drivers is that pedestrians (and therefore most probably cyclists) NEVER have right of way, which is very confusing as in most other European countries they do. The number of times i found myself stepping on the the road then having to dive back towards the pavement as i realised the car coming towards me wasn't going to stop.

I made good time coming through the outskirts but got slightly more stuck when I approached the old town which really is a maze of streets. My GPS had street maps on it however it didn't do auto routing in Turkey so I just had an arrow pointing which direction I should go. On one occasion I stopped to ask some machine gun wielding policemen which way to go. They were nice chaps and very interested in my crazy adventure although I was slightly aware of the fact that as we chatted away one was resting his machine gun on the back of my bike. This is slightly scary when you’re normally used to your policemen carrying a small wooden ‘rounder’s bat’ for protection (it sounds a bit girly when put like that). I continued pushing on through the maze of streets trying my best to head the direction my GPS was pointing me (although quite often getting completely confused by all the one way systems). I did eventually manage to make it to my destination which was a rather cheap hostel. It sounded too good to be true when recommended to us (it was very cheap for a start but also supposedly had free meals and stuff). The guy who had recommended it was a rather strange American bloke in Ohrid who was a war veteran collecting benefits due to injury and basically using the money to stay in different European countries for as long as he was allowed (usually 90 days) then moving on. Anyway the place had an ‘interesting’ feel, it was above a carpet shop and when I arrived there was no one around apart from a few people asleep in a dorm (it was 14:30), there was no obvious receptionist so I stood there looking lost for a bit unsure of what to do. After about 20 awkward minutes I finally decided (for the second time in a few days) that it was no good, there was no one to talk to and no atmosphere, so made my excuses with the guys in the carpet shop below who had my bike (I told them I was meeting a friend and stupidly got the wrong hostel, a little white lie never hurt anyone right?) and managed to get away without any problems. The hostel I ended up in came highly rated and with good reason. It was really close to some of the main sights and had a great atmosphere.

To Asia!
Much of my first few days in Istanbul we spent sleeping, chilling out and running errands. I had arranged for my dad to post the spare parts in needed to fix my bike to the main post office in Istanbul (which it turned out was a big mistake, as they never arrived and I’m pretty sure I will never seem them ever again). However at the time I didn’t know this so every day I would have my daily ride to the post office to try and ask the (less than helpful) staff who spoke very little English, if they could have a look for my package. I also spent quite a bit of time just wandering round taking it all in. The one thing about Istanbul which excited me the most, having cycled all the way from my house, was the fact that half of it is in Europe and the other half is Asia (they are separated by a small slither of water). To me this was amazing and I couldn't help but imagine how cool it would be to cycle across into Asia, it would be such an amazing thing to say you have done. One day, boosted by this and after an unsuccessful (not surprising) trip to the post off I decided to go on a small bike ride.....into Asia, as you do! It was great being on the road with the Istanbul people, watching everyday life in full swing.

In Istanbul similar shops seem to group together which makes shopping nice and easy. As I rode (using my sat nav for a rough guide to check I wasn’t get too lost) I happened across an area with lots of outdoor shops. I love outdoor shops and hadn’t been in a ‘proper’ one for some time. I needed some more camping gas so decided I would be criminal not to go and have a look (I’m very good at finding excuses to go into outdoor shops.....and bike shops). I spent a while browsing around and as is often the case I ended up having a conversation with the guy that worked there about my trip. As we were chatting away a ‘cay guy’ (tea bloke) as I like to call them came in with a tray of hot cay for the staff. In Turkey, tea shops are so common that generally shop keepers won’t make their own tea rather they will have an agreement with a tea shop who will bring them tea at certain times during the day (in some places it seemed like this was pretty much every hour or even more often, they do like their cay!). The guys that bring the cay are very skilled carrying a tray which hangs from a central point (so can sway round) often with as many as 15 glasses of cay on them. I don’t know weather they had extra, or were just being friendly because I was a guest to their country, but I was soon offered one (more like forced as you can’t really say no). Being offered cay is expected if you are in a bazaar especially if you are near a carpet shop, where cay is used (among other things) to lure you in to see the rest of their stock, (it is often taken that excepting cay in these kind of establishments pretty much means you are keen to buy something but want to talk about the price). However in this instance it was just local people being friendly. It’s a rather strange experience wandering round looking at the latest super high-tech gear sipping cay but it was such a nice gesture and shows how even in huge cities people are still super friendly. I bought some gas and said my farewells and set off towards Asia.

It was quite a lot further than I was expecting and probably took at least an hour of belting through the traffic until I was getting close. All the time I could see Asia on the other side of the river which was really exciting. As I pedalled I was just thinking about how cool it could be able to write on here, not done much today.....I only cycled into Asia! However my excitement waned when I suddenly realised it was not going to be the easy feat I had imagined. The way across the river was via a bridge, a very large bridge which was about 50m above where I was currently standing. It looked as though there might be a pavement which I could ride on but I had no idea how to get there. I eventually managed to climb to the start of the bridge (inadvertently finding some of the best bike shops in Istanbul on the way). It was actually very interesting to get away from the touristy areas and get to experience true Istanbul. Unfortunately my quest was not going well, the road over was actually a motor way with at least 4 lanes going each way. I decided I had come this far and I would see how easy it would be to get down there for a spot of dodgy motorway riding. However when I approached the slip road there was a massive 10m high sign with a picture of a bike and a massive cross through it. I was really annoyed but decided it would be silly to get arrested just to say I had cycled into Asia.

The ride home was interesting, by this time I was well into one of the residential areas of Istanbul surrounded by tower blocks and flats. It was nice to see where all the millions of people that call Istanbul home, actually like. It was hard going due to the complex maze of roads weaving between buildings. Many were one way but most annoyingly there were some serious hills, Istanbul is not flat by any means, one or two of the roads going down were so steep they would have been pretty scary in a car. It ended up taking at least twice as long to get back but I didn’t care (I had done over 20km by the time I arrived back at the hostel), I was just happy I had seen some of Istanbul other travellers don’t get to see.

Christmas shopping is bizarre in Istanbul
Because weight is a big issue when travelling by bike, I hadn’t bought many souvenirs and had no presents for my friends and family. I decided that Istanbul was the perfect place to do my Christmas shopping, and where better to start than the Grand Bazaar, definitely Istanbul’s most famous shopping experience. There is no doubting that it is Grand, the place is huge and it takes a couple of trips before you are confident about where you’re going. The first thing that stuck me was, that it wasn’t really how I imagined it to be at all. It was much cleaner and more organised than the picture in my head. It was quieter and less chaotic, there is also a lot less hassling from the shopkeepers than I imagined. I don’t know if this is just because I have become used to it, or because they are scared of a bearded traveller (one shopkeeper couldn’t get over how much I looked like his grandpa and kept asking if I was Turkish, which was quite funny). My favourite thing about the shopping experience, apart from looking at the amazing array of brightly colour beautiful things, is the banter with the shopkeepers when you go to buy something. If you set out to haggle like the locals do, you are in for a treat. They love a good haggle and (mostly) all have a really good sense of humour, all you have to do is joke around with them a bit and your far more likely to get a good deal. Later that week whilst shopping with my friend Matt who came to visit we had a good old conversation with two shop keepers. They asked if we had girlfriends to which we replied "yes" then he asked “how many?” to which obviously we replied “1” he then asked how old we were and when I replied 24 he said “and you only have one girlfriend?, I had 7 when I was your age!” then kept jibbing me about the fact I only had one girlfriend (I think he was just hopeful that I might have said 5 and therefore be interesting in buying 5 scarves instead of 1). Anyway we joked around and the conversation soon moved to wives and the shopkeeper opposite (who had just got married) joined in. They started moaning about their wives etc etc and telling us to never get married, it was all quite funny. I really recommend having a chat and joke around with the shopkeepers if you ever go, you will have a much more enjoyable experience and learn much more about Istanbul life than if you just wander round looking at everything.

This however was not my favourite shopping experience, for that was at the spice bazaar. It was much more how I imagined shopping in Istanbul to be. Big blokes shouting out prices and deals, people offering you Turkish delight to try and tempt you into their shop. There were also shop fronts piled with every spice and loose tea imaginable. The smells and colours were amazing. I ended up buying all sorts of tea and even managed to get some bargains by shopping round and doing some good old fashioned haggling. There are a few top tips if you are going shopping in either of these bazaars as well as being chatty and having a laugh. It is definitely worth going down some of the back alleys and getting away from the main areas to find some shops aimed more at the locals and looking at the prices there. Even if you don’t want to buy from these shops you can use this information later, there is no better way of haggling than being able to say “ah but I can get it from another shop for this much” and as long as you say a realistic price (they will know what other people are selling them for) they will usually realise you mean business and drop the price considerably. Another tip would be only buy from people that are willing to haggle. One or two shopkeepers wouldn’t even consider giving me deal, probably because they knew I wasn’t local or they are used to German tourists who don’t seem to get the idea of haggling. In my eyes if they aren’t able to give me a better deal then they obviously aren’t that interested in having my money so I’m not going to give it to them. Finally the best way to tell if you are getting a good deal is if they have to pause to think about it or look away, sometimes they will even pull a bit of a face, because they know you have beaten them down further than they wanted to go. It’s defiantly not worth worrying about, some people seem to hate the idea of shopping for things where the price is negotiable, but the worst that can happen is you get too cheeky and they say “no”. The best that can happen is you get a great deal and the amazing feeling that comes with it.

There is something fishy about this street
Whilst wandering down by the edge of the water at the heart of Istanbul, I came across a very fishy little spot indeed. The bridge which joins up the main shopping areas in the center of Istanbul is usually lined with hundreds of anglers trying their luck in the deep waters below. It is amazing that so many people are allowed to fish off the bridge as it does form quite a hazard for the many ferries and boats which have to pass underneath. The main hazard however is to the people trying to walk along the pavement behind them, the fishermen wait for the tiniest gap in the pedestrians before flinging their tackle about right in front of the passersby (no pun intended). It is very interesting whilst wandering past to see how much people have caught, and look at the different tactics each employed (i used to be a very keen angler and i'm sure one day i may become one again). There are also some guys who have suitcases which form mobile fishing shops and are crammed full of all sorts of hooks and weights for sale. It’s a really nice sight, to be in the middle of a massive city and see fathers taking their sons for an afternoon of fishing, the little fish everyone was catching didn’t look bad either (there is a picture of some). A bit further on I noticed a tiny little street which was bustling with activity. I went over to investigate and discovered a little fish market. It was really interesting to see all varieties of fish they had on offered. The first thing I noticed was that unlike fish mongers at home they don’t use ice, instead they periodically hose the fish down with water to keep them cool. This also has the added bonus of making them gleam in the sunlight and look far more appealing. All the fish were beautifully displayed and despite the fishy smell (due from all the fishy water of the floor) it was really interesting to have a browse and watch the sellers at work, shouting their daily specials. I really liked it especially as there were no other tourists only locals buying their supper.

Hostel belly dancing show
One thing that quite common among the hostels in Istanbul is to offer freebies to tempt you to stay. A popular one which I saw advertised at a few hostels is a free belly dance evening. The particular hostel I was staying in also offered some free food or a drink most evening which was a nice touch. However one of the most interesting was indeed the belly dance night. It was a bit strange to all be sat around in the common area then to suddenly have a very attractive Turkish woman belly dancing across the middle of the floor. It started off with her showing off her 'skills' however she soon started targeting guys in the audience and dancing for them which was quite funny. I especially enjoyed their faces as she danced, most couldn't believe their luck. Eventually it progressed to her picking out members of the audience. Some of the girls were actually giving it a good go but my favourites were the ‘reasonably merry’ Australian guys who were not letting an opportunity like this get away from them and really going for it (but mostly embarrassing themselves in the process). Luckily I had half thought this might have happened and managed to bag a seat in the middle of the crowd so I wasn’t easy to grab (I’m quite a shy person really, and hadn’t drunk anywhere near enough for belly dancing, even though she was very attractive).

A visit from back home
Towards the end of my time in Istanbul a good friend of mine from university, who is also a keen traveller, came out to visit. It was really good to see a friendly face and find out about some of the things which had been happening back home. Unfortunately I was planning on heading south from Istanbul and then catching a ferry to Greece. There were only two ferries a week so I was only able to stay in Istanbul a couple of days whilst Matt was there. We had a good time attempting to do some sightseeing (however some of the main signs are closed on some days of the week and we appeared to pick the day when many were closed). We did however managed to have a look inside the Blue Mosque. If you haven’t heard of it, basically it is the most well known mosque in Turkey, it looks pretty impressive too (see my pictures). I had spent days walking past however I hadn’t yet looked inside. Obviously what with it being a mosque and everything you have to take your shoes off when you go in and you also can’t go in during prayer sessions. The inside was even more impressive than the outside with an amazing domed ceiling. The design on the ceiling was really ornate and the windows meant it was beautifully lit up. You are not supposed to talk in the mosque and its really nice to go to a tourist attraction where (most) people are quiet or whispering which removes the (usual) annoying American and Chinese accents detracting from the experience. It would have been amazing to be inside the mosque during a prayer session, the floor was huge but I’m sure it would be packed.

I still had some Christmas presents to get so most of the rest of our sightseeing day was spent wandering round the grand bazaar and book bazaar. As always it was an interesting experience, I managed to haggle away and finish off my Christmas shopping list. We met all sorts of interesting shopkeepers, including one guy with an antiques shop selling old coins. Matt like me is interested in collecting money from other countries and is also in the process of building a poker set using high value coins from around the world. Anyway he happened to mention this to the bloke running the shop, who it turned out was a keen poker player (or addict, I’m not sure) and soon enough he had his laptop out and was showing Matt an ‘amazing?’ online poker site he uses. It was quite funny, you expect to occasionally get stuck in a carpet shop with an overzealous carpet seller however neither of us was expecting this. Luckily whilst Matt was keeping the guy busy I had a browse and managed to find an old handmade ring for my sisters Christmas present.

We had a great time catching up in Istanbul, I think Matt was also enjoying being able to mingle with travellers again in the hostel. This is often one of the things I miss about travelling. It’s the amazing thing about travelling you can go in any hostel anywhere in the world and know that everyone has at least one thing in common, they all love travelling. It makes it so much easier to meet people, travelling also seems to attract nice people so it’s not often you meet total idiots in hostels. Unfortunately it was soon time for me to start packing up my stuff once again. It was quite a hard process as I had decided to lighten my load by getting rid of anything I wouldn’t need in the next few weeks. Some was posted home and Matt also kindly took some back for me. The problem with getting rid of this much stuff is that over 5 months I had become used to exactly where everything fitted in my bags. I was able to pack up virtually without looking at what I was doing. Suddenly this whole process was turned on its head, nothing fitted, there was loads of free space and everything was rattling about. The temptation in this situation is to get lazy and fill all the voids with food (especially for me as I have a huge appetite) which adds huge amounts of weight. Luckily after a few goes I managed to work it out and was ready to hit the road for the final instalment of my cycling adventure.
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