Mixed feelings, big, overwhelming, not to be missed
28.10.2012 - 01.11.2012 21 °C
We arrived in Istanbul at 11 pm by bus from Plovdiv Bulgaria. Metro Line, originates in Sofia. The bus left Plovdiv at 11 am. Nice Turkish bus with tvs and an attendant who passes out water, cakes, coffee and tea as well as hand sanitizer. The bus is clean and seems quite full.
At 2 pm we went through the Bulgaria section of the border. At 8 pm we finally cleared the Turkish side. We were told we could get off the bus for fifteen minutes to use the washroom. Then we hung around the bus for five hours and forty five minutes.
Not an auspicious entry into Turkey.
This was the first hole in the floor washroom I encountered. After using it and paying for the privilege, I noticed a bathroom marked English, well too late. I find the squat washroom difficult to use, consequently for the rest of the day I barely moistened my tongue with water. No, there isn't a grab bar. However, if all the Turks use them and prefer them there must be some merit and squatting solidly into old age without support must keep them limber and flexible with strong leg muscles and balance.
We took a cab from the Istanbul bus station to our hostel, Cordial House hostel in sultanamet. We experienced some pretty fancy? Crazy? driving. No matter what the official count, several people have told us there are twenty million, maybe more, people in Istanbul. They say you drive five cars, your own, the one in front, the one behind and the two beside you. If you are a pedestrian watch out, you wait for the car. Drivers are aggressive. Pedestrians do not have any right of way.
Quick to hit the horn, never mind signalling, yes we just avoided that head on collision, whew thank god we made it.
We had a twin room, actually there were five beds but we had the whole room, you could barely move for all the beds, did not have a private bath, but ok for one night. Hostels are not that cheap in Istanbul, but this one is about twenty two dollars each. So we thus spent night of twenty seventh. On 28 and 29 we got a private twin with ensuite, way nicer, better view, better sheets, way nicer air pillows for fifty canadian, some kind of deal I made with the clerk, forty euro for ensuite. Also this room had a tiny tv and we got CNN so lots about US election and hurricane sandy.
Cordial House is a short walk to the Blue Mosque. So on Sunday 28 Oct after we got our room straightened out and moved our stuff over to the private twin and head out for breakfast and coffee. Waiters stand on the street and call you in, turns out this first place is really expensive so we each have turkish coffee, a thimblespoon of strong black coffee, for six tl each, that is more than three dollars, eegads I usually like milk in my coffee, but when in Rome, the dainty cup is at least one third sludge but....... you get your caffeine fix and I love strong coffee. We are walking on the square approaching the blue mosque, when we are greeted by a pleasant, English speaking "skout". This isn't the right word, he is a look out, finds tourists and brings them back to the family carpet, kilim, ceramic, leather shop. Well I am really not interested and we are going to have breakfast, but no wait, he knows the perfect place for breakfast, not too expensive, and what do you know on the way to the family shop and he situates us at a pleasant outdoor cafe, he will be back. So the breakfast plate has a hard boiled egg, olive paste, nutella, some other sweet paste, tomatoes, cucumbers, cheese, honeycomb, olives and bread, likely some other stuff, I took a picture. Very good, eaten on a patio, a cat curls up on the chair next to me.
Well our skout came back, yes we need ten more minutes, we did almost get away but he was there, in we go and the carpets are deftly flipped out, displayed, explained, now the elimination process, kind of fun, interactive, say yes in turkish or no. Now you have narrowed them down, walk around, see how the colour changes, which one do you choose?
We turned down the offer of tea so as not to tip the obligation factor scales, we did not buy a carpet even though being the first customer, it was a special religious holiday, for the luck, we were offered a scandolously low price, never to be repeated, whew we are out on the street, no carpet, heading for the Blue Mosque.
Which has six minurets and is free to the public, you have to put your shoes in a plastic bag which they provide, and wear a scarf, also available there.
There is quite a bit of turquoise in the stained glass but in the tiles are lavender blue. Very beautiful inside and out.
It is a lovely day we have tea on a patio and sit on the grass in a park.
There are women wearing a wide variety of clothes, bare headed women in sleeveless, women with head scarves,
A real mix. It is funny to see a woman covered from head to toe and her male companion dressed in whatever casual ensemble, just as he pleases, modern day and ancient tradition, this is not my concern, this is a secular country. I wonder what they wear under the scarves to give them that shape though. A lot of women wear what looks like a conservative pastel or grey coat, they wear a scarf and almost like jeggings and nice shoes with it. I think it must be warm, it is about 23 degrees C today. There are a lot of good looking people, very nice hair and expressive eyes. Then there are the tourists, well without the backpacks I do not know if I could pick them out, the Aussie accent is a clue.
We have kabobs for supper.
Monday. We tour Aya Sofia, 25 tl each admission, Ataturk was smart to turn it in to a museum, a real meaningful church, Christian first, then turned into a mosque, christians and muslims and the merely curious flock to it, 25 tl a pop, pretty good income.
Onward to the Archeology Museum, which is a bargain, ten tl, takes up three buildings, we spend at least two hours here, too many artifacts to take in, but we leave with a blurry impression.
On to Topkapi Palace which may be the richest palace or the oldest palace, I just forget now, but I was impressed with the bowls of egg sized emeralds in the treasury, the huge diamond, all the gold, jade, rubies, pieces of the prophet's beard, just mind boggling, dna.
There are some nice viewing points to take pictures at the castle. Oh admission here was 25 tl.
That was quite a bit for one day.
So we go to the grand bazaar for which Jeff has zero interest, it is like being at a huge market, or like all those booths at stampede, like a maize, but these booths are selling leather, furs, gold jewellery, carpets, junky souvenirs, candy, turkish delight, 3500 booths under a roof, I am scared I will lose Jeff, get lost and never find him, it is a relief to get back to the square and blue sky. The Grand Bazaar is one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world. Something like 300,000 people visit daily. It is a real hullabaloo with vendors calling out to you, tourists hustling by, tea boys running around with tea for the merchants and their friends who squat casually outside their booth.
Tea seems to be the common drink, served in little glasses. At restaurants, if they like you, they give you a free glass of tea at the end. We could never figure out why or why not tea was offered, but we learned to tip accordingly.
We now make a tactical error and move from our nice hostel, so well located, out to the apartment of a couch surfing host. We have couch surfed four times all very positive experiences.
We take a tram, transfer to a bus then transfer again. One hour, easy..
We arrive, the place is on the twelfth floor there is an elevator.
Our host serves us tea and cookies. Later his friend from the states stops by and later two other friends who don't speak English are visiiting. Eating sunflower seeds is an art form here, crunch crunch, very slick. Out comes the water pipe, they have apple tobacco, bought specially for us as they know Jeff smokes and in Turkey that is not a problem, the patios all have ashtrays.
So it is a late night, Jeff is practically comatose the last two hours, and announces at 1230 am he is going to bed, so that effectively ends the socializing as he is sleeping on the couch. I get my own room. i get next to no sleep but on 31 I wake jeff up at 930 and again right now on Nov 1 at 845, still he is tired and I am cranky, we have sights to see. The location is a drawback but the good parts included the food, served on the coffee table, taken up from the central dishes with bread, really good eggplant and tomato dish, tea made in a double pot served in special glasses on little saucers, a good lentil spread, lively conversation, some funny stories. The location was a drawback, but near shopping. Halvah, which we love, is so cheap here, we are eating way too much.
On 31 October we take a one hour city bus to near where the boats give tours of the Bosphorous, For fifteen tl each we relax on the deck and see the European side and the Asian side of this huge city located on two continents divided by the Bosphorus. Really scenic, pleasant, talked to a doctor from Saudi Arabia who trained in Edmonton for five years, a surgeon, he may train another year in Vancouver, and a Japanese family from Tokyo who live in Kuwait, he works for energy and has been to Calgary. So, do you speak English?
Regarding couchsurfing in Turkey - we had numerous offers from men, none from women or married couples. I would recommend that females travelling and surfing alone have a hard look at the profile and references before making a commitment. Maybe Turkish women are out of bounds and western women considered loose. At 63 who am I to judge? But the young men at our couch surfing abode did talk about western women hitch-hiking in Turkey and they thought it was foolish. Yes, they will get rides.
Just exercise a little caution here please. Turkish women are largely reserved in public. Therefore, behaviour considered normal to us may be misconstrued. Some of the guidebooks do warn you not to be too friendly. This was written in one couch surfing reference by a guest regarding her male host, "I should have known better than to allow him to give me a massage, but then, so should have he." Otherwise he had lots of good references, but this type of comment should be a red flag.
Now 1 Nov we are on a metro line bus heading east, it is 26 degrees C today, the bus is air conditioned, 24 canadian each for this trip. Not bad. We are going to Safronbolu, a Unesco World Heritage site near the Black Sea, we hope to take a day trip to Amasra on the coast.
The bus leaves at 1300, the trip is 6 and a half hours, the first 1.5 hours we are making our way through Istanbul.