Istanbul revisited: the crossroad of Europe & Asia
Trip Start Aug 08, 2011
77Trip End Ongoing
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We had returned to pick up visas and make final preparations for our onward journey to Uzbekistan. We were on edge, anxious not only about the road ahead through places which see few tourists, but also about the problems that could arise if our visas were denied. Already we had sacrificed our dream of travelling in Iran – new political stand-offs between the British and Iranian governments had become heated to the point of the closure of both the British embassy in Tehran and the Iranian embassy in London
But how to circumnavigate this huge country? Via Georgia and Azerbaijan? Visa problems, and unreliable (if not almost nonexistent) ferries. Via Ukraine, Russia and Kazakhstan? A massive detour and added expense. Via Iraq and Afghanistan? Probably suicide. Our only viable option was to fly. Through gritted teeth, we bought tickets for the Uzbekistan Airlines flight from Istanbul to Tashkent, but before we left, we still had time to explore this fascinating city in greater depth.
Our first port of call, however, was the Uzbekistan Consulate far to the north of the city in the sleepy port suburb of Istinye. After admiring the impressive full-page Uzbek visa in our passports, we stumbled upon a gent's barber and an impromptu – but much-needed – haircut ensued. A gaggle of old men hung around the barber's shop, drinking çay and joking like schoolboys. Another man arrived, holding a bagful of simit, the ring-shaped doughy bread covered in sesame seeds that was sold on virtually every street corner in Turkey. Clearly, we had arrived at the right time, and we were happily offered some simit and çay while we waited nervously for what, thankfully, turned out to be a very good haircut.
“So how're you doing?” asked a deep, rich voice from the next bunk in our hostel dormitory. It was Sherman, a Detroit-born forty-something currently living in San Francisco. He had a wide smile which sent wrinkles across his cheeks, and a naughty sense of humour behind a pair of bright brown eyes
The following morning, we awoke and prepared ourselves for a treat. Two weeks up to our knees in mud and dirt at Pastoral Vadi had taken their toll on our bodies, roughened and dried by the heavy labour, so a hamam – a traditional Turkish bathhouse – was our first port of call. The Süleimaniye hamam, unlike truly traditional hamams, allowed men and women to bathe together, but its place in history as the Sixteenth Century bathhouse of Süleiman the Magnificent gave it a certain magical quality that we felt somehow out-weighed much of its inauthenticity.
A little sign in a nondescript side-street behind the elegant Süleimaniye mosque directed us to the hamam, and as we entered the main hall, with carved wooden pillars and high ceiling, we knew this would be quite an experience. A man in traditional costume – a guilty touristy touch that we both found more than a little amusing – welcomed us at the door and ushered us through to a changing room. Separate-sex hamams are, traditionally, nude affairs, with a small optional towel to cover the nether regions becoming more popular in modern times, but this hamam provided strange tartan bikinis for the women and a rather skimpy matching sarong for the men. Traditional wooden sandals were also provided to prevent slipping on the wet marble floors. However, our failed efforts to walk in them without clawing at the walls and steadying ourselves on the furniture made the idea of taking our chances on the slippery marble rather tempting as we stepped gingerly out of our cubicle
Ushered into the main bathing room, even the dangerous footwear could not make us ignore the beauty of the room. The square room was clad with light grey marble and covered by a large central stone dome punctured by hundreds of holes that allowed the sunlight to stream in and glint through the roof. Four side-rooms partially closed from the main room were the massage rooms, where masseurs were poised to pummel us into squeaky-clean, new people, and the centre was occupied by a large circular marble table, on which to sit in the 40 degree heat.
After the masseurs had decided that we had been marinading in our sweat long enough, they beckoned us into their room, still hobbling awkwardly on our wooden sandals. We were sat down and before we had a moment to get comfortable, a bowlful of cold water was poured over our heads. And then another. And another, in case the first two were not cold enough. Immediately, they donned rough mitts and scrubbed us mercilessly. Rolled lumps of black skin sat like insects on our now-reddened bodies. Although they were clearly gentler on Helen, what looked like months of grime sat all over us both.
The masseurs drenched us in more cold water for good measure, and then placed us face-down on a marble slab. A foot-high layer of bubbly lather was applied to us, before a rough full-body massage and yet more cold water. We staggered out of the room wondering if we had been romanced or assaulted. Wrapped in white cotton towels, we sat in a cooler room to recover from the heat with a much-appreciated glass of çay. Emerging onto the grubby streets of Istanbul with light heads and wobbly legs, we headed towards the Kyrgyzstan Consulate to collect our second visa and undo much of the hamam's good work
Later, we met with Erkan, our host for the next couple of days. Sporting a short beard and thin scarf, Erkan was a restoration architect with a warm smile and furrows above his eyebrows. Once active within the Couchsurfing network in Istanbul, he had felt unable to continue after a shady transfer from non-profit organisation to a business and investment from a Facebook co-founder. The cynical appropriation of a genuinely grassroots initiative for business purposes was, to him, the negation of the very principles on which it was based. His American flatmate, Alix, gave private English language tuition, and exuded a typically American energy and zest for life. We ate with Erkan and shared stories and thoughts about work, the built environment, as well as modern Turkish life. We were poised to leave Turkey, and it felt like we were only just getting under the skin of this complex and interesting country.
The nearby Princes' Islands offered a pleasantly sedate escape from the shock of returning to Istanbul. Private motor vehicles are banned from this little archipelago at the northern end of the Bosphorous and, although they are unpleasantly busy in the summer, this time of year was relatively quiet. Nevertheless, the little ferry to the islands was full, its old wooden seats heaving under the weight of eager bodies upon them.
Piling out through the ornate late Ottoman port building at Büyükada, the largest of the Princes' Islands, we found ourselves in a busy but tranquil town centre. As we began a circular walk of the island, horses trotted past, pulling brightly-coloured carts laden with tourists
Wide streets became evergreen woodland tracks, as the town retreated down the hill. Cyclists and more horse-drawn carts sped past us, as the sparse, gnarly pines stood silently in their grassy bed. The afternoon was drawing later, as we returned to town to catch the ferry. Occasionally, a large house would lie in disrepair, its wooden panels hanging from empty window frames, and its railings rusting. We speculated that these houses were the perfect inspiration for ghost stories, their front doors ajar and uneven steps almost begging the inquisitive passer-by to enter.
Resisting the temptation, we strode back to the ferry and found two of the few unoccupied seats. The man opposite enquired about Helen's camera, and they began talking. He had rounded cheeks, and a wide smile framed by a well-trimmed goatee. A conversation developed, and it transpired that he and his wife were from Iran.
“It is the Iranian New Year,” he said, with a happy glance to his wife. “The ancient Zoroastrian day of rebirth”.
We cast our eyes around the crowded ferry, and everywhere we looked, Persian-looking faces looked back. It seemed like half of Iran had come to Istanbul and we hadn't even noticed. After explaining our planned route and reasons for flying over Iran, we were keen to talk about life there. The warmth of the couple seemed to contrast with the strictness of the government that ruled their country, and a slight hesitance to talk about Iranian politics was soon forgotten with the wide-ranging conversations about education, culture and food.
Amir, the husband, made his money from the export of nuts, especially high quality Iranian pistachio nuts, which are some of the finest in the world. As with other Iranian exports, many countries are reluctant to buy, and as a result, a huge amount of the country's exports are 'laundered', in a sense, by shipping through Turkey or Dubai. Amir did not suggest that he was involved in this, but he certainly knew the difficulties of exporting Iranian produce, which is far easier said than done. Turkey, the crossroads of Europe and Asia, has become a central node on a global network of distribution that allows Iranian people to continue life despite their government's unpopularity in much of the Western world.
The ferry bumped into port at the Kabataş dock in Istanbul, as we hastily exchanged contact details with the Iranians, before the surge of people swept us up and spat us out onto the street. That evening, we were cooking for Erkan, and it was important to get ingredients. When we returned to his flat, we struggled with the keys. We wiggled them, pulled them, pushed them, but it seemed that we were locked out. Returning to the outside world, we headed for Istanbul Modern, the modern art gallery across the road from Erkan.
As it was closing time, a young couple in front of us was being turned away as we arrived. They certainly weren't Turkish, but their English accent was a mix of North American and something else that we couldn't quite identify. His long-ish hair and curly beard fluttered around a pair of kindly eyes, while she wore a nose ring and had a short, boyish haircut that framed a delicate Middle Eastern face. Together, we spoke to the security guard in a mix of Turkish and English. Then we wandered off in our separate directions, saying smiley goodbyes.
A minute or so later, as we had watched them walk away, they stopped and discussed something, before turning back on themselves, towards us.
“Hey, do you want to do something?” the woman asked. “Maybe some tea?”
Anisa and Bardia were Iranians with a different story to tell than our friends on the ferry. Born into the Baha'i religion, whose followers have suffered massive injustices since the Islamic Revolution in Iran, Anisa was ousted from university by the authorities because only students from a Muslim background could attend university in Iran. We were taken aback – her energetic and engaging personality radiated all around her, and the notion of removing her from university, where she would almost certainly excel, seemed absurd.
Bardia, born of a Muslim family, had a gentle but strong intellectuality that complemented Anisa's energy beautifully. Resenting the strict conservatism of his government, he was one of many thousands of young people in Iran rejecting the existing order through subcultural forms such as music and art. Nevertheless, he remained a staunch defender of Iranian culture, and passionately maintained a distinction between his native tea and its Turkish equivalent.
Time moved quickly, and we had to say our goodbyes sooner than expected. We would meet two days later near the Galata Bridge, at the mouth of the Golden Horn river. That evening, we ate with Erkan, and more conversations about food, music and films surfaced, followed by some excellent chocolate-covered pişmaniye. It felt strange that of the many connections that we had made during our short time in Istanbul, only one had been planned and organised in a formal manner. Nonetheless, spending time with Erkan and Alix had been enriching and enjoyable, and that evening we said fond goodbyes
The following morning came, and we met Sherman at the hostel. We had also met two Australian travellers, Viren and Hana, and we all exchanged travelling stories for a while. The twists and turns of independent travel come untangled through these conversations – shared joys and pains, contrasting experiences – and the cathartic process of sharing eases the problems weighing down on a traveller's mind.
Later, we met with Joni, a member of Couchsurfing hailing from New Zealand, who explained her experience of settling in Istanbul with her Turkish boyfriend:
“It's easy to say 'I like this' or 'I hate that' about a country,” she said, with a refreshing frankness. “Places are different, and something that might annoy you is perfectly normal to the people there.”
This was never so clearly laid bare than our discussions with Anisa and Bardia who we met again the following day. The gentle arc of the Galata Bridge was lined with fishermen dipping their rods over the railings, their captive fish lying half-dead and twitching in plastic tubs. At the far end of the bridge, we found our friends and wandered around the Spice Bazaar and nearby. Walking past a scarf stand, Anisa raced inside and returned with a dark green pashmina; a gift for Helen. Half-protesting this generous gesture, Helen accepted the gift and, in typically English fashion, apologised profusely for not having a present with which to reciprocate.
We discussed the situation in Iran, and the difficulties faced by non-Muslims and young people in the face of a strict, conservative government. Problems in the UK suddenly sounded pathetic in comparison, but there were positives to be taken from Iranian culture: widespread social support and solidarity, and respect for the wisdom of elders, to name only two.
Anisa dreamed of moving to the USA, where some of her family already lived. She and her family had claimed asylum in Turkey due to religious discrimination in Iran, and were in the process of applying for permission to start a new life across the Atlantic. Bardia wistfully looked on, only visiting for a few days, as his love's excitement at moving even further from him grew and grew. Born into a Muslim family, he had little ground for asylum and faced the paradox of supporting her to build a new life but knowing it may mean the end of their relationship.
Rummaging in her bag, Anisa pulled out her residence permit to live in Turkey, and explained to us the details of her case. She appeared almost naively confident about her impending success, but her excitement at heading to the USA was infectious and pulled us along with her.
Soon, it was time to say goodbye. With a warm embrace, we parted company and felt particularly sad. There was no way of knowing where they would be, or how they would be, in a few short years. We hoped that Bardia would make it somehow to be with the woman he clearly dotes on tremendously, and that Anisa would win her claim and start a new life.
Our parting embraces were especially long – not only were they goodbye to Bardia and Anisa, but they were also a goodbye to Turkey, the fascinating and varied country that had been our home for six weeks. Much as it has been branded with the identity of a package holiday destination by simplistic British imaginations, the place itself was a wonderful mish-mash of cultures, architectures, people. It had played host to all sorts of connections and convergences while we were there, and the encounters with other travellers or locals were often shorter or more unpredictable than we would have liked. The surface of Turkey's way of life had been well scratched, but we were sure that there was far more to be discussed, asked about or shared.
Despite this rather complex temporality, it was time to go. Our bags were meticulously packed to ensure no excess baggage charges would be aimed in our direction, and we waited nervously for the time to go. I had attached a certain glamorous mystique to Uzbekistan, but the reality of traversing this harsh land on our own was now beginning to take hold. Poor public transport, a troubled democracy, and over-zealous police awaited us. The functional wrought iron gate to the hostel clattered behind us, and a cool wind blew across our faces. It was time to face Uzbekistan.