Istanbul was a really interesting place to spend six days. There are a lot of famous sights which are spectacular. The Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia in particular were awesome.
The park area between the two is popular. There were a lot of families and groups of friends there. Many were getting ready to break the fast as it was Ramadan. There was a lot of perceptible excitement as the food came out and the sun dropped lower.
The Hagia Sophia was fascinating. It’s the photo above with the purple fountain. It’s a was built as a cathedral and became a mosque. It’s final incarnation is that of a museum, ever since Ataturk decreed it to be the case in 1931. This conversion from religious use to secular is fascinating to me. A conversion like this must have cost some serious political capital. Atatürk is still a cult of personality here – ubiquitous as the face on the money, a common postcard, a piece of street art and the namesake for a slew of infrastructure. I like to find a good biography on the man whose namesake is “Father of the Turks” who truly created the nation in his own image. It’s amazing to have been that progressive so long ago (i.e. women’s suffrage ahead of some of the prominent European countries like France and Italy.) Enter a reforms, a new alphabet based on Latin, compulsory primary education and a modern republic. Ataturk seems to have had mixed a lot of traits that appeared later being handy with a gun like Teddy Roosevelt, the presence of a Winston Churchill and the statecraft of a FDR. And politics is easier then you’re in absolute control like Stalin I suppose — which usually doesn’t work out too well. Pulling out the religiosity of the beloved Hagia Sophia and implementing Western dress and attire are symbolic. Perhaps the true legacy is in education. I was shocked to have not learned any words in Turkish. I’m clearly no linguistic prodigy but the basics accrue from necessity. No matter where I seemed to be, kiosks off the beaten track or kabob stands, everyone had a workable command of English.
The people were very kind. On the way out to the airport needed some small change to make the two-part tram and metro connections, and had 80% of it. I decided to drop by my routine kiosk to buy one last water to break a 20 Lira ($10 Cdn) note. With the big backpack in tow I was clearly headed out of town so the fellow who I’d been to see a dozen times prior insisted that he give it to me for free. It was very nice and we chatted a bit. I left to the tram, very pleased, until I realized I’d completely forgot about the reason for my purchase. This meant I put a 20 into the machine and seemed to win a slot machine victory. One token and 17 coins, 1 Lira each, came cascading out. Small change has been a struggle for me, so this sea of metal got spent with a vengeance on junk food at the airport because I accidentally bring it to Jordon or beyond I’m stuck with it.
On the way in I grabbed a seat and tried to fix my wonky zipper for about 5 minutes. The fellow across eventually must have gotten tired of the noise and offered to help. He struggled with it and the end solution, prior to me hauling out my duct tape, was to pen in my old Nike runners with the two sliders and ignore the broken zipper line. He turned out to be an Italian studying business in Turkey. There is no punchline to the joke of ”how many MBAs does it take to fix a zipper” as it’s still up in the air.
One of the interesting parts of the trams is that they run on dedicated rail lines in the middle of the street. When It’s rush hour bad drivers will get stuck in the middle of the road. I saw cars not move for an entire green light cycle because a slew of cars (big Benzes, usually) would be blocking the intersection. The crazy part is when this happens to the trams. The cars have a standing capacity of 98 people and are usually pretty full. Say there are three cars to a train. I’m amazed they put up with this.
I did some quick math below, thinking that that wasting hundreds of peoples’ time would get expensive and quickly. That would make a great hypothetical fine. Unfortunately, it only came out to $22 based on my assumptions so I added an imaginary $300 surcharge on stupidity. Traffic chaos is obviously par for the course for a city with 12 million, but Istanbul does have a 2020 Olympics Games bid in so a starting to hammer home some civility on the road might help the case somewhat.
There was not always a lot of variety in the food. I didn’t notice too many grocery stores, yet there were a few small ones in the neighborhoods. The street food was invariably pretzels (a tough sell for me after the amazing German ones), fish sandwiches or some sort of sugary and sticky looking desert pretzel with a greenish tinge. On my last night I went to a sit-down place to class it up a little and had some meatballs. They ended up being square cubes of hamburger sort of like a meatloaf idea – and there was a lot of it. This was great because I stashed my leftovers and got to feed some friendly cats and dogs on the way home.
There was one final type of street food in the mix: street mussels. Normally street seafood is the only thing riskier than street meat, so I was fairly cautious. But I kept seeing people eat them – Turks more than tourists – and eventually decided to go for it. Picking the bones out of yet another fish sandwich (it would have been my 7th) was just not doing it for me. I devoured about 4 of the mussels which are stiffed with rice on my way to the ferry to do a tour of the Bosphorus Strait.
The ferry was very easy – it was just one more link in the Istanbul transit system. Pump in 3 Lira to a machine and out comes a token – good to go! It leaves from the European side and docks in Asia which is cool. Halfway through the trip it occurred to me that perhaps my pre-trip meal of mussels in the sun, in an unrefrigerated container, might not have been the best idea. Thankfully all was well. Taking Dukoral the oral cholera treatment may have had something to do with me being able to get away with this.
Istanbul was very peaceful despite the recent uprisings over the Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s unpopular decision to disregard popular opinion and develop Taksim Square. I made it to the square and it was very tranquil. There was even a folk concert happening.
There was a residual police presence in Taksim. There were at least two armoured crowd-control trucks with water cannon on them. Yet, to my knowledge there were no deaths. This is in direct contrast to the rash of killings in Egypt which is very lamentable. I had to cancel my time in Egypt and will now just get off in Cairo to change places whole en route to Addis Ababa. I hope that things improve there very soon.
Taksim in on one of Istanbul’s many hills. There is an inclined railway, or funicular, built that goes up to Taksim Square. I’d been walking in the past but decided to try it out. Apparently it opened to much fanfare in 2006. Unfortunately, Chile ruined this for me with the creaky, colourful and fun funiculars of Valparaiso. This one was underground, utilitarian and just outright boring. All future trips were just treks by foot. One evening I was walking down the hill and saw some cool t-shirts at a little store that was perhaps 10’ across. I kept on going but by the bottom of the hill I had a chance to reflect on how I was short on T-shirts. Back up I went. The incline plus the 30-something heat meant I was a sweaty guy. I bought a psychedelic tiger shirt without trying it on because in my current state trying would be the same as buying. At least by not trying it on it would not be stuck on for hours until I found some airconditioning.
The tiger shirt, it turned out, would have fit a lot better had it not been for me ability to eat street seafood without becoming deathly ill. It is an awfully tight fit. I was not expecting this – I must have accidentally stopped at a place for emaciated tourists. I was hoping to have a place catering to the sturdy Turkish fellows and therefore get something with a lot more breathing room. Who knows, perhaps the African cuisine will have me swimming in the Tiger shirt by the end of August. Well, I sort of doubt that as I know Ethiopian food is very good per the place on Whyte Ave.
I made it to the most famous Turkish bathhouse as well. It’s where you get scrubbed down and massaged with a fair amount of vigor. One blogger describes the attendants on the men’s side (there is no gender mixing allowed) as “men of few words and many pounds.” It was an interesting experience especially since I’d been backpacking for the past six weeks and had some worn-in travel grime. Halfway through the sandpaper style scrubbing the fellow pretzels my arms and does a chiropractic-style body slam. Then is the inquiry”
“I get good tip right?”
I nod enthusiastically. Or defeatedly. Maybe that is what prevented any more amateur chiropractic moves on a huge marble slab. I was relieved either way. About an hour later I was done and ready to head to the showers. All was well. Nope, I was summoned back. There was another scrub down requited. It was getting a little tedious by then but I guess I’d paid for it so why not. Things weren’t terribly comfortable as it was a pumice stone of some sort. Then even less comfortable but I was trying to be a good sport. Then I figured I’d better save my skin in a more literal sense. I squirmed my way out the of the line of attack because it was not much fun. Saying yet to the final scrubbing was a mistake because I left looking rougher than I came, with red scrapes on the eyes and back of the neck. It was my fault for carrying on the tough act too long and for possibly having a pre-existing sunburn that would have been exacerbated.
On my last day I braved the Grand Bazaar and its 4000+ shops. This fellow had some interesting observations about salesmanship and the effective use of humour. It was not as intense as I thought – I made it a full 10 minutes before even aimless wandering before even getting one solicitation. This might be an indication that it’s time to shave. Or perhaps find a better fitting tiger shirt.