Istanbul: life at the centre of the universe

Trip Start Aug 08, 2011
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of International  , Istanbul,
Tuesday, February 14, 2012

We arrived at the coach company office in Thessaloniki and began to feel a little unnerved. Perhaps it was the animated gestures and raised voices of the altercations between passengers and office staff as they manhandled huge boxes and waved paperwork at one another. But most likely it was the Turkish words emanating loudly from their mouths and plastered across the office walls that led to our nervousness.

Bound for Istanbul, the bus drew up and the passengers piled on board. Although Turkey has been firmly established as a Mecca for package holiday tourists for decades, the thought of deviation from the (symbolic) comfort of Europe heralded a major step in the direction of Asia and the beginning of a tougher kind of travel.

On squeaky leatherette seats, we shuffled ourselves into the least uncomfortable position we could find for the twelve-hour overnight journey. The tinny sound of the on-board TV screen blaring a slick Turkish soap opera into the stuffy air of the coach lulled us to sleep as the bus sped towards the border.

The lights flashed on at 2am, and we awoke to the bustle of other passengers shrouding themselves in as many layers of clothing as they could muster, before exiting the bus. Bleary-eyed, we assumed that this was passport control and followed suit. Exiting the bus tentatively onto the icy tarmac, a blast of freezing air slapped us across the face. The gale howled across our huddled bodies for half an hour or so, until visas were approved and we could return, shivering, to the warmth of the bus.

The murky pre-dawn eventually shed its half-light on the sprawling outskirts of Istanbul. The hunched figure of an intrepid old woman trudged through the virgin snow on the side of the road, and signs of population became denser and denser, until we were spat out unceremoniously into the freezing otogar, Istanbul's vast doughnut-shaped bus station, at around 6.30am.

After a couple of hours of semi-consciousness in the surprisingly plush otogar passenger lounge, we waded into the snowy, slushy melée of Istanbul. Snow glistened on the domed roofs of ancient mosques, and locals in the doorways of the boxy, modern shops that crammed the pavements shouted to one another across the tramlines. Young men scuttled across the streets carrying trays laden with glasses of çay, the sweet, dark Turkish tea, while elderly men pushed carts laden with hard, bagel-shaped breads covered in sesame seeds.

Despite a heavy tiredness bearing down on us, it was decided that a visit to the notoriously brash and loud Grand Bazaar was the ideal introduction to this fast and untamed city. The moment you enter the low, arched walkways of the bazaar, with flaked paintwork gazing down on the crowds, it is easy to be transported back to the Ottoman heyday of the city when Constantinople was the centre of a vast Imperial and commercial power stretching from Persia to the heart of Europe.

Our excitement about being at this historical centre of trade was high, and offset the tiredness we felt from the bus journey. The Ottoman Empire was the crucial trading link between Europe and Asia, making its elite fabulously wealthy from an accident of geographical location. The cultured and diverse Ottomans spoke European-like Turkic languages but until 1929 wrote in Arabic script, and their inflection was heavily saturated with Arabian and Central Asian pronunciation. And in Istanbul – at the Grand Bazaar in particular – these many forces and cultures collided in a visceral cocktail of voices, faces, smells and styles.

This idyllic picture is shattered, however, as the predatory traders approach unsuspecting tourists from their hideaways. Immediately, before we had found our way into the bazaar itself, a man approached us.

“Hello! Hello! How are you, my friends? Where are you from?”

“London, England,” we answered, innocently, surprised at his unsolicited warmth.

“London! I have a cousin in London! Let me take you for çay and I will show you some of my scarves. You like scarves? These are very beautiful – best in Istanbul!”

Ushered through the labyrinthine bazaar and into a small room surrounded by scarves, we sat awkwardly on stools and looked nervously at one another while he fetched our çay. When he returned, he gave us the çay he promised, as well as his best sales pitch. It is hard to describe the sheer skill and nerve with which he very nearly convinced us to buy a scarf that neither of us wanted. Starting with a high price, every time we said “no”, he dropped the price - “very good price, just for you, my friends!” - until he grudgingly accepted that we were not going to buy. We emerged from his interrogation room exhausted, and left him sat there, sulking in the dimly orange fluorescent light of his shop.

Stepping tentatively out, we feared repeats of this particularly intense introduction to the bazaar. Keeping eye contact to a minimum, we pored over pottery, rugs, and silks, dwelling at stalls only occasionally. Enamoured with a particular design of pottery – the traditional 'Golden Horn' style, with delicate blue arcs and lines intertwined in circles – we considered actually buying something. One stallholder demonstrated to us the wide differences in quality to be found in the bazaar, shedding light on the process and materials involved, and Helen haggled hard for a plate and bowl set. In just a short time, we learned the ways of the bazaar: haggle with a smile, don't accept first or second offers, give them a good game, appear disinterested, and don't go into dark rooms at the promise of free çay.

The bazaar was heated with the frantic movement of bodies, but outside, the icy winter continued. The ornate drinking fountain of Sultan Ahmet III glistened with snow in the bright sun, and benches along the Roman-era Hippodrome were slick with ice on their wooden seats. The cold was such that it was difficult to focus on the architectural splendour and rich history of the place, and we retreated to the hostel. Weather, it seems, structures movement and mood, making travelling in winter challenging at times.

Back at the hostel, Helen got talking to another guest. The man, whose name we never learned, had recently escaped from Syria after his involvement with the uprisings there. His friend, who had also escaped, had spent 40 days in prison, and was released still fearing for his life. On nearly all of its land borders – Iraq, Iran, Syria, Greece – Turkey's neighbours are in one way or another in turmoil, and Helen's new Syrian friend was powerful evidence that we were getting closer to those areas. Indeed, sitting on the coffee table, a Turkish newspaper announced the killing of members of the socialist Kurdish separatist group, the PKK, during skirmishes in the south-east of the country.

Although a comfortable holiday destination in some areas, Turkey's political position in the region is a complex and difficult one – partially Europeanised, Asian, and ethnically, culturally, and politically mixed. Round the corner from the Milion Stone – the centre of the Byzantine world, from which all distances were once measured – our hostel was the site of this encounter of a very modern kind.

Istanbul's central position in the cultural and geographic crossovers between Europe and Asia has also led to the city becoming a focal point of convergence for eastward-bound travellers. The Pudding Shop, established in 1957, became a meeting place for travellers on the Hippie Trail to India. Although its current incarnation is just another of the many squeaky-clean restaurants seeking the Tourist Lira, it remains a site of pilgrimage for those heading east. To us, the Pudding Shop was an essential point of departure for Asia, and we vowed to return to this little place when we returned to Istanbul before heading further east.

Istanbul also hosts consulates from around the globe, charged with helping (or hindering) the many different nationalities in the city to acquire visas and permissions to travel across the world. The Uzbek and Kyrgyz consulates were our destinations, and helpful locals guided us to their tiny offices at opposite ends of the city.

No matter how much one prepares, there is no way to predict what will happen when you apply for a visa. At borders, a bottle of vodka, some cigarettes, or a few crisp Dollars might smooth the process. But especially for the notoriously lumbering bureaucratic behemoths of Central Asia, extensive research led us to understand that no matter how water-tight your visa application is, if the person behind the desk is having a bad day, then you sit in the lap of the gods. Luckily for us, the Uzbek and Kyrgyz staff were clearly having OK-ish days. The forms were accepted and in a politely aloof manner we were told to “come back next week”. Unable to come back next week as instructed, we crossed and re-crossed our fingers that our visas would be waiting for us in late March, when we planned to return.

Returning to the streets of this city of 15 million inhabitants, the contested history of  Istanbul was laid bare to magnificent effect at Hagia Sophia, a vast mish-mash of architectural styles. Originally a Byzantine basilica, the building became a mosque under Ottoman rule, before being declared a national museum in 1931. From the outside, the building loomed into view like a grumpy mediaeval space-monster, with domes, minarets and buttresses haphazardly shoved together to produce a stout but impressively huge structure that dominates the Istanbul skyline.

The huge space inside the building was cold and dim, but diffuse sunlight reflected on the gold mosaics and paintwork to produce an almost otherworldly light quality. Just above head height, suspended by long wires attached to the domed ceiling, a raft of chandeliers hung like jellyfish in the air. On the walls, layers of history and conflict were apparent, with early Christian symbols peeking out from behind later Islamic artwork. The centuries-old tension between Christian and Islamic influences still lingers on here, long after the crusades, with a delicate balance being made between preserving the vast calligraphic murals from the building's Islamic era, and revealing the Byzantine Christian mosaics that lie beneath.

Soon, our old friend, Phil, would come to join us for a short leg of our journey, and our thoughts turned to the sea that we would cross to head south-east to Izmir and beyond. Istanbul's fishing harbour lay to the south of the main tourist district, and a fresh sea breeze blew a few rays of sunlight onto an otherwise murky day. Sandwiched between a dual carriageway and the sea, the harbour's buildings stood in an orderly concrete line along the seafront; not attractive but somehow teasing us to find a way around the high mesh fence that kept the public out. We hung our fingers on the fence and peered through the gaps like children at a zoo, spying roughened fishermen wearing battered wellies, heavy woollen jumpers, and coarse beards. Behind them, boats sat in an orderly line, awaiting their next seaward trip.

Walking further east, we passed a small fish market flanked by empty restaurants, their plastic hoardings flapping and rippling in the wind, before a long concrete walkway sent us towards the point where the Sea of Marmara, the Bosphorous and the Golden Horn meet. Before this point, however, we darted into the web of narrow lanes containing some of Istanbul's oldest houses. Fragrant smoke from wood fires emanated from the chimneys of wooden Ottoman terraces. This enclave of tumbledown houses had survived fires, riots, wars and earthquakes, and their residents looked on in puzzlement at our fruitless search for road names with which to navigate our way out. It would not be long before Phil arrived, and we knew that friendly faces would be appreciated on arrival in this sometimes overwhelming place.

Phil arrived at the hostel in his inimitable flurry of energetic motions and a flash of wild, gingery-brown beard. The following morning we were due to give him a tour of some of our favourite parts of Istanbul, but first, we ventured into the cold night in search of a grand old Turkish institution – the nargile.

Through a low stone archway, we emerged into a dimly lit courtyard draped lavishly in throws, wall-hangings and carpets in deep reds and blues. Sitting on low couches, clusters of friends huddled around their water-pipes, drinking çay and talking between puffs on the sweet fruit-based molasses perched atop the body of their pipes. The air was thick with fragrant smoke as we were ushered into a corner and asked what flavour of molasses we preferred.

“Try cappuccino,” said the young man next to us. “It is definitely the best.”

Thanking him, we ordered cappuccino and three apple çays. Our nargile arrived and we took our first few puffs. The smoke, cooled and filtered by passing through water, was disarmingly smooth, and its sweetness was subtle and moreish.

“Good?” asked our Turkish neighbour, keen to practice his English.

Our answer was a resounding “yes”. He, like many patrons in this café near the main university campus, was a student. Keen to avoid military service, he was prolonging his studies as much as possible. His two friends sat, usually silently, as we spoke about Turkish culture, language and politics for an hour or more. The three Turks all looked very different – the talkative one was distinctly European, whereas one friend was Arabic-looking and the other was almost oriental in facial shape and features.

Referring to the latter, our friend declared that “this man is the most Turkish here. See his narrow eyes? This is the face of the original Turkish people.” His friend coyly shrugged and, with a chuckle, muttered under his breath.

“Turkish people are from everywhere,” he reiterated, and took another puff on his pipe.

The following morning, a stiff breeze cut through us as we strode towards the Blue Mosque. Officially named Sultan Ahmet Mosque, sitting elegantly opposite Hagia Sophia, the mosque is so called because of its thousands of ornate blue tiles lining its interior. Sitting on four vast internal pillars, its dome is likewise decorated with these locally-designed handmade tiles, which stamp on the building its unique Turkishness.

Built in a very similar style, the nearby Süleimaniye mosque was the first large mosque that we entered. A slight apprehension accompanies such entrances, fearing the breaking of local norms and the sanctity of the space. We removed our shoes at the huge doorway and stepped inside. The carpet felt soft and warm under our feet, as we were hit with the sheer scale of the space inside. Although smaller than the Blue Mosque, Süleimaniye felt more spacious, with a bright, airy quality that immediately felt peaceful and uncluttered by the mortal complications of the outside world.

Returning to this complicated outside world, we knew that our time in chilly Istanbul was coming to an end. We would return to the city in March to collect visas, before heading towards the deserts and mountains of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. The city has been for centuries – millennia, even – a point in which different cultures, nations and empires have mixed, and over which they have fought. But for these travellers – three of many thousands who still pass through the city in all directions – we bade Istanbul a fond farewell and headed east into Asia.
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Owen on

I've got a long way behind you, but I enjoy reading your posts so much I'll take my own time catching up and hope all's well with you wherever you are at the moment. Wordpress has been a pain in the neck for me for a long time, whatever evil-intentioned local authorities have been up to as well.

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