Trip Start Nov 05, 2010
137Trip End Ongoing
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Turkey was a country Sasha and Dasha were excited to visit. Dasha visited Ephesus almost 10 years ago for one day and was happy to return. It was Sashas first time in Turkey, yet he felt Istanbul seemed like "the familiar territory". While he doesn 't speak the language he heard Russian spoken almost continuously. He was even addressed by the shopkeepers in his native language!
No way out
Traveling without a fixed itenerary with one way plane tickets has always been a risk. While many countries require the airlines to check whether patrons have a return or an ongoing ticket as a condition of admission the rule is seldom enforced. We were caught once before when Air New Zealand made us buy tickets out of Kiwiland at the Honolulu Airport. The real scare came in Cape town on departure.
"We can't let you on a plane without an ongoing ticket out of Turkey. It does not matter that Istanbul is two hours by bus from Bulgarian and Greek borders."
Sasha and Dasha had forty minutes to figure something out. Cape Town airport had two travel desks. The first one offered us one way tickets to Cairo from Turkey for $1500 each. We were not yet desparate and walked to the second desk. After Dasha told the clerks about our situation they just asked for our passports and, voila, a printout. They printed us a flight schedule with an departure date out of South Africa to Egypt. A fake itiniary that got us to Turkey! That's all we needed at that moment and proceeded towards our long flight to that city on the Bosphorus.
But we digress. As usual we did not book any accommodation. In Asia we were use to getting into a town and walking from one guesthouse to another tocheck for vacancies, and haggle until we got a fair price. The same scenario worked in Taksim, the centre of Istanbul, but it was not easy. The area was overflowing with people. We could not find the hostels that we researched online. Streets were not named. There were little hotels and with some effort we found the right one. The owner seemed to be preoccupied with listening to a football game on the radio. Once we got his attention we looked a few rooms. We chose a single room on the fourth floor. It only had a narrow single bed so only one of us could sleep on our back; while the other person slept on their side. We took turns switching positions. No big deal, it was as almost luxorious after three weeks of camping in Africa. At 60 TL it was worth it.
The area we were at, the Taksim square, is the place where everyone comes to have fun. While there are lots of foreigners the number of young Turks is overwhelming. Hanging out with friends is what Turkish people like to do. The district is almost fully pedestrianized. The storefronts were full of snacks, knick knacks and Turkish delights. The architecture was a blend of Victorian and Neo Classical with most buildings designed in the late Ottoman period when attempts were made to modernize the country. While buildings, stores and eateries are worth looking at, the real joy is people watching. "We could have that in Toronto if downtown Yonge could be pedestrianized" - Sasha thought.
Most Istanbullus get around by public transit and the city has all modes one can imagine. Heavy metro, light metro and commuter rail cover parts of the city. A nostalgic tram is running down the mighty Istiklal in a single track with people standing on outside steps and the rear hook. It is fairly safe since the streetcar is only slightly faster than pedestrians. The district is connected to the waterfront by two funiculars, underground shuttle services. For people who don't wish to transfer from mode to mode ordinary buses go everywhere from Taksim square and bus rapid transit is operating in a highway median in the suburbs that connects the European side of the city to the Asian suburbs. The most exciting way to get around is by Bombardier Flexity tram. It goes around the city's numerous historic sites such as Aya Sophia, the Blue Mosque, the Grand Bazaar and the Spice Bazaar.
Bosphorus on Boat
On our first day we went on a very reasonable priced Bosphorus Cruise. The boat took tourists along the European coast with views of Dolmabahce palace, the key neighbourhood of Besiktas and northern suburbs all the way to the second bridge over the straits. We returned along the Asian side which was greener and much less touristy. Dasha marveled about the old buildings that she passed along the sea. It was amazing to see how much of Istanbul architecture was perserved. Sasha eavesdropped on a tour guide speaking to a Russian tourist and learned about a highlight of the Asian coast - a military academy that proudly includes the future colonel Muamar Quaddafi in its alumni list. It should be noted that we spent all our six days in that city on the European side.
No visit to Istanbul is completed without seeing the monuments. The Aya Sophia served as a cathedral, a mosque and a museum during the various periods of its history. Despite the long lines we managed to get in quite quickly and hire an audioguide. That was not necessary since there were plenty of explanations in English. The building served as the most important Christian shrine for over a millenium. While the domes are quite impressive lots of mosaics are still being restored. We could see lots of work going on as many sections were closed for renovations. Unlike St. Peters in Rome, there was no way to climb the top.
Let's be frank, the Blue Mosque did not impress us much after seeing the grand mosque in Muscat. It looked great from the outside though and turned out to be very photogenic. Dasha managed to maneuver skillfully between groups of tourists with the camera and found precious moments to snap some stunning pictures. She had to be quick though as we were on the tour bus territory.
We were lucky to find a couchsurfing host again. In fact, he found us. After several days of correnspondence we met at Starbucks on Istiklal and took a tram to his house. Since Sasha could not get enough of dried fruits and dates our host Oglucan noted that Sasha should live by the spice bazaar. Dasha enjoyed tasting all the different dried fruits such as figs and berries.
Istanbul was an exciting city which we kept coming back for more! So sad to leave but happy to explore some ancient ruins.
Gule Gule - Bye bye