The art of haggling in Obamastantinople

Trip Start Mar 23, 2009
Trip End Apr 21, 2009

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Tuesday, April 7, 2009

As we left the beautiful scenery of Cappadocia we realized that we would be sharing our last day in Istanbul with a very special guest. POTUS...

Obama T-Minus Two Days (Sunday):
We arrived back at Ataturk Airport with our softest landing yet. We realized that this was the first time we actually flew a regular airline (Turkish, the national carrier) and thus that might have had something to do with it. We decided to brave the Metro to get to our hotel, The Turkuaz Guesthouse. With little hassle, other than the extremely full tram car and having to force our way out, we made it to our stop near the Grand Baazar and with Bianca's mad map skills we found our way down a (VERY) long hill to the edge of the Sea of Marmara and our 18th century Ottoman Mansion.

After settling into our attic room we decided to have our first real attempt at shopping and head to the Grand Bazaar. We quickly found out however that even though it is one of the most touristy places in the city, it, along with nearly everything else did not seem to be open on Sunday's (Muslim's = Friday's off so we thought we might be safe, but no...).

One of the things we had not done yet was a traditional Turkish Bath or Hamam and one of the most famous ones around, Cemberlitas was open so we went for it. We had been pre-warned that the bath's are definitely more geared towards men but Bianca was up for giving it a try, since we had nothing better to do because everything was closed, we headed inside.

Cemberlitas was built in 1584 by the famous Ottoman architect Sinan (previously mentioned). Turkish bath's are similar to other types of baths (my only experience with old style baths are the Hungarian bath's in Budapest) in that men and women are separate and you get some sort of soapy rub down by a big scary man or woman. Turkish baths are unique in that instead of having pools of hot and cold water to go in and out of, you lie on a huge heated stone slab and dump cold or warm water on yourself. It sounds odd and perhaps not the most pleasurable, but trust me, it was fantastic.

So Bianca and I had very different experiences with this place. As I said before, they were traditionally geared towards men, so I had the benefit of using the traditional camekan or locker room area and original hot stone slab and bath area. We signed up for a 15 minute soapy massage (standard) and a 30 minute oil massage (extra). My tour de bath began with a 10 minute hot stone warm up, followed by a 10ish minute soapy massage by a loin-clothed Turkish man with bad teeth, followed by an unbelievable oil massage by a quite strong Turkish man, followed by a hot shower, another 15 minute hot stone relaxation and finally topped off with another mild soapy massage. Finish that off with a personal towel dry and wrapping and I was one happy camper. Bianca on the other hand was led into a nice, but obviously not original locker room and then was led by a topless, very large Turkish woman to the hot stone slab for a very short lie-down, followed by a quite nice extra-long 20 minute soapy massage (picture topless fat Turkish woman's boobs flapping around all over Bianca while the lady talks about Obama coming to visit), followed by a very nice 30 minute oil massage. Now at this point things are going quite well but unfortunately the ladies wouldn't let Bianca back into the hot stone room to relax after the oil massage nor would they let her shower off telling her that the oil was "good for her skin." So Bianca was forced back to her locker room to try and use a towel to get the oil off and wasn't able to shower. So needless to say I came out all showered and happy and Bianca was not so...but she was a good sport about it as she always is...

For dinner we had delicious Doner Kebab in Beyoglu across the Golden Horn and had a nice relaxing evening at a cafe...

Obama T-minus One Day (Monday):
Since the other place we wanted to visit upon our return to Istanbul, The Dolmabahce Palace was closed on Monday's we opted to do the famous "Bosphorus Cruise." Unfortunately the Istanbul weather did not cooperate again as the overcast sky's ruled the day. For those who aren't aware, the Bosphorus is the relatively narrow channel that runs between the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara (the the Sea of Marmara flows into another channel, the Dardanelles and then out to the Atlantic). On one side is Asia, the other Europe. The Bosphorus and Dardanelles are extremely important geographically (think Gallipoli in WWI or hundreds of oil freighters coming from Russia and the Caucasus daily that need to get out to the Atlantic). Anyways, the cruise is really just a ride on the public ferry, criss-crossing the channel, making a few stops along the way until you reach the last port, about 5 km from the Black Sea (the last 5 km are controlled by the Turkish Military). There are private cruises as well but they coast way more, don't go close to as far up the channel and take about 1/3 the time. Even with the poor weather the cruise was enjoyable. We sat on the European side on our way out and the Asian side on our way back. Many Yali's (Ottoman Mansions/Summer Homes) dotted the channel side as we floated by. We also noticed a distinct police and coast guard presence in the water...numerous coast guard ships and police boats were all over the place, especially closer to Istanbul.

The trip out towards the Black Sea takes about an hour and a half and ends at a port called Anadolu Kavagi on the Asian side. There isn't much to do here (the stop-over is a minimum of three hours) except walk about 2 km uphill to an old 14th century Genoese castle which has a beautiful view of the opening of the Bosphorus into the Black Sea. Although the weather was crappy, we decided to hike it up and take a look. I can only image what a beautiful sight it would have been had it not been gray and gloomy...but what can you do. Anadolu is also well known for it's pushy and sometimes obnoxious restaurant touts who come out and hassle you constantly about their menu and fish prices. It was aggravating and annoying...but we did finally settle on a little place on the harbor and had a few mezes before heading back on the boat of the hour and half trip back to Istanbul.

The trip back was uneventful save for a few pretty views of Yali's and some dolphin sightings. We did again however note an even more increased presence of security forces in the water. I would guess that it is probably not everyday that you see a Turkish Navy Submarine surfacing in the Bosphorus but I guess that is what happens when Mr. Obama comes to town!

Upon our return to land we headed up to the Grand Bazaar for some shopping. Built shortly after the conquest of Constantinople by the Ottoman's in 1453, the Grand Bazaar is an unbelievable maze of indoor streets lined with shop after shop of anything you can possibly imagine from antiques and jewelry to carpets, leather and trinkets. It is a beautiful and overwhelming place and one must be prepared for the constant touting that occurs. We put our game faces on and headed in for some bargaining!

After an hour or so with some quality purchases made (hopefully for decent prices, or at least we think...) we braved the rain and headed to check e-mail at a cafe and then back over to Beyoglu for dinner. Beyoglu as previously mentioned is still on the European side of Istanbul but is across the Golden Horn (another waterway that branches off the Bosphorus and Sea of Marmara). It's a very cool area, with less touristy "stuff" and is more frequented by the normal Istanbul and Turkish population. It has the more expensive hotels and many many very cool, smaller restaurants and cafes. We opted for a change of place for dinner as we are tiring of kebabs and Turkish food (only one more night after this!). We searched the Internet and went and found a Thai place that seemed to get quality reviews. We somehow managed to easily find it, even in the pouring rain! While it was disgustingly overpriced, the food was pretty solid and our belly's were (we think) quite happy with some noodles and curry instead of yogurt and kebab.

After our late dinner we headed back to the Turkuaz and couldn't help but notice that there were now police everywhere and barricades erected all along the streets of Sultanahmet...

Obamamania Arrives (Tuesday): Our last full day in Constantinople....

Today is our last day in the wonderful country of Turkey. It has been a wonderful two weeks here and we have enjoyed every minute of this amazing place. It is most definitely a place that both Bianca and I want to come back to and explore even more. Two weeks was enough to just skim the surface...

We spent our last day mostly wandering around Istanbul doing all the shopping that we had put off until the last day. As mentioned in the title, Obama was in town and thus we steered very clear of the Sultanahmet area as he was to visit the Hagia Sofia and some of the other sights. Even away from that area you could not escape as the police presence was ridiculous...everywhere, helicopters, riot police, closed roads...the works! I guess that is just the way it is when Obamania arrives!

After Bianca had to head back down and up the big hill because she left her wallet at the Turkuaz, we headed back to the Grand Bazaar for a bit more haggle-friendly shopping. Bianca and I picked up a few more little trinkets before heading back over to Beyoglu to look for an old map shop we read about in Lonely Planet. The last few trips we have gone on I've started to purchase old maps and so for my birthday this year, Bianca was nice enough to offer to buy one for me. We had "great success" and found an awesome 18th century French map of the Ottoman Empire. The guy who owned the store was super interesting...he used to be a captain in the Turkish Navy, had been to 75 countries and talked to us forever about numerous American TV shows (favs are House and Grey's Anatomy). I am quite happy with my 28th birthday present!

We spent the rest of the afternoon wandering the streets in and around Beyoglu (mostly on a mad search for Pajama pants, since I ripped mine, but sadly we were unsuccessful and I'll be sporting Galatasaray F.C. boxers for the rest of the trip). We are meeting Atacan's wife Paula for some coffee in a bit and plan to have an easy going afternoon before heading back to Hamdi for one last Turkish feast while overlooking the Golden Horn.

We hope you all have enjoyed the Turkish part of our journey! Tomorrow we are off to Zurich for a few days before heading to Austria for Gruberfest 2009! We'll be in touch and still be blogging, although most likely not as frequently.

Until next time,
Bianca and Michael

ps - I was unable to watch the MSU game since the Turkuaz hasn't updated it's electronics since Edison and thus has no Internet. But from all I read it was unfortunately not a great way to go out for Sparty. It is still very exciting to have made it, especially in Detroit. I only wish I could have been around to have experienced their run. Alas, Turkey is much cooler :)
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we're so jealous
What a pleasure to read your blogs. We can relive our trip through your eyes and are thoroughly enjoying it. I wish the balloon rides existed when we were in Cappadocia!
Enjoy the rest of your trip in beautiful Switzerland and Austria. Bianca, you must be so excited to see your family.Will you get a chance to go up to the Jungfrau? (usually done from Interlaken). It is gorgeous!
Have fun and stay safe.
Love, Joani

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