25.04.2012 - 01.05.2012
I guess every traveller is searching for something. Inspiration, enlightenment, knowledge, self discovery, there could be any number of things. I myself don’t know exactly what I am looking for, probably a mixture of all those things, but in any case they would each come from experiences, which is what travelling is about. For me, I love the moments in life which seem to activate all the senses, the ones where the body seems to buzz in a sensory overload. It somehow makes me feel alive and connected to my surroundings. Normally, these moments are rare, fleeting events. In Istanbul, they are a way of life.
We could feel it as soon as we got off the plane. The place had an energy to it. As we sat on the coach from the airport it seemed to whisper promises of grandeur, building the excitement within. As we approached the city it became evident we were in a different place. Driving through the crazy traffic we passed on one side an eclectic mix of houses clinging precariously to the hillside, and on the other, the glistening sheet of the open sea, reflecting elegantly the reds and pinks of the dusk sky. And scattered across the water, a large number of freight boats sat idly, anchored in the current they all lay facing the one on, as though locked in spiritual prayer.
Slowly the hills opened up to reveal the city landscape. Spreading far and wide the evidence of an ever expanding populace. Both my wonder and excitement grew at seeing the signatures of the city, the towers of the mosques shooting into the heavens. And they were everywhere. In groups of four they littered the scenery, lit up brightly against the darkening night sky. To me these seemed almost magical and ancient, remains of an Empire long gone, but worshipped by a culture that is very much still in practice. And as we continued, the city immediately doubled, separated by the Bosphorous River leading out to sea, and it became clear as to why this city has played such an important role in history and why the rulers of the past identified its value. It is the place east meets west. A fortress on the sea, where Asian and Europe embrace to coexist, if not merge into something unique. This would be where Mel and I got the first real taste of the exotic, and we were hooked.
When we arrived we went to meet our CouchSurfing host at Taksim Square, which is the commercial hub of the city and also start of the main nightlife strip. His name was Okan and he was a young twenty something Uni student studying civil engineering. We headed to his flat in amongst a bustling residential area, dropped our bags off and then went immediately back into the roar of city life. Okan had invited us to his friends 21st party, so along with a few of his other buddies, who were also in town, we headed to this awesome little student bar. I've said it before, but there is no way we would've found this place without CouchSurfing. The entrance was nestled down this little alley, and looked like the front of an apartment block, in fact two floors up and I was convinced we were going to a house party. But then the whole place opened up into a loft style bar with incredible views of the city. I wish we had brought the camera, but we don’t like taking it out the first time we meet new people. Anyway, we drank and met new friends and had a great night.
We got up the next day and were ready to hit the town. One of the cooler friends we met the night before, Furkan, offered his services as a guide. We accepted, although I somehow feel we really didn’t have an option, but it worked out great anyway. He took us to breakfast, where our love affair with Turkish tea Chay, and Simit blossomed. We took a stroll through the main shopping and nightlife street which was really interesting, a little touristy but the architecture and people watching was good. The road snaked downhill until we eventually came to Galata Tower, an old cylindrical structure of large stones and a medieval presence.
Unlike most old towers in Europe, this one had the convenience of a lift, which we used with the graceful agility of a senior citizen, ascending to the top. Well, breathtaking sounds like a cliché, but the view from the top was truly that. What an incredible and amazing city scape. From the 360 degree viewpoint, we marvelled at every aspect of the town, from the thousands of structures clinging on the the steep hills, the seemingly excessive number of mosques, ancient structures and new skyscapers, the islands, the golden horn, the lush blue waterways and the plethora of ships that lazed about on its surface. What really set the mood too, was blaring out of the mosques tower speakers was a native prayer, signalling the museum ritual. The city was definitely alive. Every sound, every detail, everywhere we looked we found something that just blew us away. Dumbfounded, we just kept saying wow to each other. I could’ve stayed there all day.
After we descended the tower we continued along south toward the water, and met another one of Furkans friends, Ayca, on the main bridge. She was very nice, and agreed to help take us to main sites, giving a local residents perspective. Our first stop was Tokapi Palace, the large residence and fortification of the old emperors and kings of the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires. Through the museum of largely Ottoman extravagance we strolled, admiring works of art, clothing and treasures, and of course the weapons and armour which sliced their way through anyone opposing the Empires expansion. They were all very interesting and unique, again taking influences from both Europe and Asia and creating their own flare. Plus its worth mentioning that the view from several points in the palace was amazing. Its positioned in such a way that it sees anyone coming in and out of the city for miles away, both land and sea, so that's pretty spectacular.
The next stop was the Cistern. This was an ancient underground reservoir for old times past, once used to house water it now houses the ooh and ahhs of bewildered tourists. If I tell its just rows of columns underground with some water in it, it doesn't sound too flash, but it did command a sort of reverence normally reserved for the more spiritual places, so it was kind of strange.
Now, I don’t really know how to explain the next sight. But, if you think on the tower, when we were amazed at looking down at the beauty and wonder of the landscape and the movement of the entity that is Istanbul, well that was great, one of the best panoramas I seen, but this was somehow better. Standing in the middle of the Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque I was frozen in wonderment. The power of these places was all encompassing, towering high into the heavens the structures appear themselves to be god like, personifying that which its purpose is to worship. Not that they are staggering high, they are just truly beautiful works of man that are both elegant and confronting. The spikes shoot into the sky guiding the domes, the walls high and binding. There is something terrestrial about it, but the realisation that it is human makes it more astonishing, that man can spend so much time and money and passion and create something so beautiful. Putting aside my own feeling on religious beliefs, I find it hard not to admire such creations, as art is art whatever the purpose its made for, and every time I passed these two, the Blue Mosque in particular, I would inevitably have to just stop for a moment and soak it all in, feeling as moved each time as I did the first.
We did end up going into the Blue Mosque. The interior was quite decadent, but then seeing the people praying and the shameless segregation of the sexes that accompanied the custom reminded me not about mans magnificence, but in fact its absolute opposite. Of course, I did so in the most respectful of ways and valued the opportunity to see such rituals, they always just seem to somehow wound me internally.
If only wonder and amazement could sustain the body. Alas, we had to eat, and by that stage we had met back up with some of the boys and we all went to get a kebab and yoghurt drink, a local speciality, which was pretty delicious, after which we took a stroll towards the Grand Bazaar.
The Grand Bazaar was a great experience. Yes its noisy and cramped and you get lost and the energy is buzzing and there is nice architecture and that's the cool thing about it, but really it was a bit soulless. The stuff they sold was pretty much tourist junk, and it was all lumped together, so all the carpet places were next to each other etc there wasn’t this scattered variety that I would’ve thought. I didn’t like it too much. The food and spice market down by the water was much better.
Okan followed up the Bazaar with a trip through the University area, which had been designed as a bit of a town within the town. It was different again and something we probably wouldn't have noticed without him.
We went to another restaurant were the guys had some beans and rice and more tea and then headed to a funky joint to try some water pipe. The place was an awesome loft style space that again overlooked the sea and the port. With the excellent views we chilled out with some apple tobacco and our Nargiles and sipped tea and coffee into the night. It also started storming too, which just upped the craziness of the landscape with flashes of lightning and booms of thunder.
The night ended with a scary arse taxi ride which involved 6 of us cramming into the small cab and some fear for my life driving. It wasn’t cool.
The next day we said goodbye to Okan as we booked a hostel for the next two nights and headed into the city. It was an absolutely gorgeous day. We dropped our bags off and explored the cities back streets. This is definitely one of the highlights of our trip, and we do it in every city we travel, where we have a rough idea where we want to go and just try and get lost getting there. If we see an interesting looking lane, or some pretty alleyway, we'll just go down it. Of course if its got bad juju we wont, but we really try not to think and just wander. In Istanbul, this presents so many surprises.
We stumbled upon markets, ruined buildings, local playgrounds, gatherings of old men drinking tea (although that's everywhere).
We ended up up making our way to the spice markets near the water, and they were amazing. Everything you picture a crazy Turkish spice market to be, this was it. First off, the people was a crush. Hundreds of locals and visitors crawled slowly, almost as one, through narrow passageways, being yelled out and lured in by the stalls vendors touting their goods. Old women would barge past, able to slip through like children due to their shrunken size. And the product that was on display was incredible too. Every spice imaginable was heaped in barrels, their colours vibrant and their aromas powerful. Sweet stalls were plenty and plentiful, I sampled a few Turkish delights, but due to Mel's nut allergy we steered well clear of the ominous nut filled creations which were everywhere. Its a good thing too because I would've eaten everything. Continuing through the aisles we marvelled at jewellery, fabrics, carpets, glassware and all kinds of food, from fresh fish to fruits and vegetables. It really was an awesome place. I think I wore a massive smile on my face the whole time, intoxicated with the scents, sights and sounds of this exotic wonderland.
Next up we decided to take a walk back to our area, but the long way around, hoping to pass through the main residential parts. It didn’t really take to long get out of the main crush and into a more urban district. We cruised through some residential areas on the outskirts of the main tourist district. One of the highlights was passing through a local park, where all the locals gathered to enjoy the sun, play, hang out and chill. We did get a few strange looks, either thinking we were lost or just startled that we were there, but it never felt unwelcoming. In fact for the most part all the Turkish people seemed very sweet and hospitable, and it was great to see the sense of community with which they live their lives. Everyone seemed to know and support each other, which was pretty strange when you consider Istanbuls size and population.
When we arrived back around the Blue Mosque where we were staying, after pausing in divine admiration of course, we decided to head around the back of it. Enticed by a few markets stalls where we picked up some scarves and other bits and pieces, Mel giggled like a little girl and was beaming at her exquisite haggling skills, we looked at some big MC Hammer pants for us, and worked our way around the side, following the streets we felt good about. Directly behind the Mosque was a little district of Hotels, ushering bus loads of Asian tourists in and out. The few little shops scattered around reflected its clientele. Passing this area we continued to choose alleyways and lanes with interesting architecture, passing beautiful houses, a school play area, and more locals looking at us with puzzled brows. Again, our wandering paid off with various surprises popping up around each corner. The next was a little intersection with an oval garden in the middle that acted as a square, with local shops and cafes populated by the residents, passing each other and chatting and laughing, and the whole place had a really sweet vibe about it. It even housed a photography gallery that we really wanted to see but it was closed.
On from there we found ourselves weaving through some pretty plain housing blocks and empty cold streets, when suddenly it opened up again into this crazy assembly of restaurants and dining options. Crammed with potential customers and the net casting ushers that tried to snare them, this area was pulsing. Well dressed tourist and Turks alike waded through the mind boggling amount of choice, as flocks of hungry seagulls imitated from above.
Getting a little lost and overwhelmed we looked for a way out, when unexpectedly we saw the ocean at the end of a street. Following the horizon we ended up along a rocky shoreline, amongst a party atmosphere of local kids and families enjoying barbecues and drinks and each others company. There were local vendors selling their wares, and weird shooting games set up on the rocks, the targets being glass bottles and balloons. By this time too the sun was setting, giving a lush red hue backdrop to the fisherman and boats that dotted the shore. Again, there was this really nice feeling about everything, relaxing yet entertaining, people laughing and chilling. It was really a fantastic change of pace from the tribal jungle of Istanbuls centre.
With the light fading quickly and us not really knowing our way home, we decided to head back. Luckily the Blue Mosques pillars exploded from the skyline like a hand shooting out from under the water, and we used this as our guide. It was a particularly beautiful guide too, as at night, all the towers are illuminated, setting a powerful image against the darkness, accentuated by the hundreds of birds circling its peaks. Closer to home we stopped for a coffee just underneath it, it was pretty special.
After a terrible nights sleep in a shitty hostel bed, we creaked out into the wide open world, to be woken once again by Istanbuls brilliance. The first stop today was inside Hagia Sopiha, the gorgeous old cathedral turned mosque turned museum. Fortunately the hordes of other sightseers couldn’t detract any of this ancient structures magnificence, and we roamed around inside marvelling at every column and arch and detail of its interior. The whole thing was a work of art.
Speaking of works of art, I have to admit that I do on occasion enjoy video games. Not all them, mainly one particular franchise that I think is artistically brilliant, and that's Assassins Creed. The latest game of which is set in ancient Istanbul, and its creators painstakingly recreated the city based on modern structure. What this meant was that the places we had been were instantly recognisable as I had experienced them already in the virtual reality setting. Hagia Sophia was no different, so I was swimming somewhat in nerd utopia. Now I'm a little embarrassed to admit the next part, but in the haze of excitement and disbelief, and the feeling as if I were in a dream already, I probably did the nerdiest thing I have done in my life. I threw on a hood imitating the games protagonist while Mel took pictures. I know, I'm not proud of it. But it happened.
Back over at the Galata side, we took the opportunity to explore the districts back streets. The area is set out as a natural hill working up from the water, so we decided to cross the bridge, walk up via the main strip and check out the shops and buzz, and make our way down through the side alleys. It worked out well. The main strip was swarming with people, shopping, sightseeing and even a few student demonstrations. We noticed a bunch of locals going into this seedy looking shop so had a look and it opened up into this big warehouse of super cheap clothes. As we were coming up on two months of being stinky travellers, we purchased a few t-shirts. I know its lame, but the sensation of wearing a new shirt after wearing the same old three you have everyday for two months, is quiet refreshing.
Once we had enough of the crush we darted into one of the lane ways and headed back downhill. This was really cool, as unexpectedly this area we walked into was full of small boutique shops, with custom made jewellery, clothes, and food stores. There were vintage stores, and funky shoe shops and studio/galleries for local artists. Plus it had a great view down to the water.
By the time we hit the water we were pretty tired. It was a really sunny day and the heat was getting to us, and the scenery became that of a few abandoned warehouses which weren't enough to spark the excitement needed to push through it. But luckily a turn around a corner revealed the seaside once again, packed with restaurants and boats and fisherman, and something about how the water glistened was very uplifting.
We stayed up that night trying to organise the next part of our travels, but weren't having much luck. Every route or idea we had failed and it felt like we were hitting a brick wall. The best we did was end up accepting the help, reluctantly, of the shady guy who worked at the hostel. And shady he was, as the next day he sent us to pick up some overnight bus tickets miles away, and when we got there they said they had no idea what we were talking about. Luckily no money was exchanged, but we were planning to leave that night, so a frantic scramble ensued, but in the end we managed to get at least another overnight bus. Funnily though, as we were walking back to the hostel, stressing a little about the next very destinations, we passed a travel agent across the road with a guy outside, who said he could help us with bus tickets. Well once we walked in, we met a smooth talking Turkish man who made all our worries go away. Now normally I'm not a fan of travel agents, and we don’t use them, but this guy seriously helped us work out the best way for us to travel during the next week or so and seemed pretty genuine. Having stayed up the night before exploring all the options, I had a good idea of pricing and he didn’t even try and rip us off, which was nice.
Well sadly we then had to leave Istanbul. We picked up our bags and thanked the hostel guys for being a conniving little shit, and made our way to the unpleasantness that is Turkeys overnight bus system. And it was really sad. Istanbul really is a place of wonderment. It's landscape and scenery is breathtaking, its mosques are majestic, the sounds and smells are truly intoxicating, and the way the people travel through their lives in this chaotic, crazy yet respectful way is really an experience to behold. We loved it. It's one of those cities were you don’t just pass through as if on some travelator in a museum, you dive right in. Like a pool of culture you get immersed in it, you have no choice but to. As you swim within its current it flows around you and through you. Twirling and spinning in its rapids its energy crashes and tosses you around, threatening to suffocate you at times, but if you go with it, at most it just goes up your nose. And that's when you find yourself coughing, with your eyes stinging and you muscles sore, drenched from head to toe, laughing at the beauty of it all, and wanting to do it all again.