Thursday, 13 December 2012

Day 251 – The hustle and bustle of life lived between two continents. (Turkey)

Having heard many reports on the horrendous traffic and parking in Istanbul, we were prepared for a challenge. Making our way into the very centre of town at rush hour though, we were pleasantly surprised at how bearable the traffic was – not even comparable to Tehran, Bangkok or Phnom Penh. It was heavy for sure, but it moved continuously and the drivers weren’t particularly erratic at all. A tip for anyone planning to navigate a vehicle through Istanbul: don’t listen to any nay-sayer who will try and convince you that it’s impossible, but if you want to get a really great run into the centre of town take Kennedy Cadessi (Street). Parking was a task, but compared to some of the obstacles we’ve overcome, it wasn’t too big a deal. Parking on the street in the centre of town is restricted, in some places it is free, in some payment is required, and there are plenty of secure lots all over the city. You’re unlikely to stumble upon a spot right away, but with a little patience one will certainly pop up.

We had one day with Tunkles before he left us for a week, which we used to visit the main tourist sites – the Blue Mosque, the Ayasofya Museum, the grand bazaar and the general sights and sounds of one of the most hustling and bustling cities in the world. We found the Blue Mosque to be a lot more tasteful and less sold out that our cynical selves had assumed. There was no entrance fee even though it is quite obviously only a tourist attraction and no longer a functioning mosque, men were required to have their legs covered, women were asked to cover up including heads, and there were subtle bulletin boards and leaflet stands providing information on Islam dotted all over the outside (not inside) of the mosque. The building was well maintained and despite the crowd flowing through, we were somehow encompassed by a sense of quiet calm. I covered my head as directed, as did many others, but still the majority of tourists ignored the signs and entered with ponytails and necks on display. Regardless of whether this is a valid rule in the first place, and as much as I appreciate the fact that there was no sense of intimidation so women weren’t made to feel uncomfortable, it does bother me that such a rule is put in place yet not enforced and so blatantly broken.

We had high expectations for the grand bazaar, possibly unfairly high, and they were far from met. The issue is probably that after the Tehran bazaar which controls 30% of Iran’s entire economy, spans more than 10km and sells anything you could possibly think of, probably no other bazaar in the world will ever compare. We found the Istanbul grand bazaar to be horribly touristic, audaciously overpriced and as is often the case, a group of shops selling identical items. A few things did grab our attention, but unfortunately the only purchase I really wanted to make was a hat. It just happened though, that it was in the only shop which wasn’t directed for tourists but was in fact a wholesaler where I wasn’t allowed to buy fewer than ten of any item. It was a nice hat, but I really didn’t have any use for ten of them.

We spent our first night in a hostel in Fatih which is the tourist centre of Istanbul, near the Blue Mosque, the Ayasofya, the Saltan’s Palace, the grand bazaar and all the souvenir shops and fancy restaurants. For the remainder of our stay though we were hosted by Yalin who we met on Couch Surfing, and she showed us some incredible impossible-to-find-on-your-own spots. Istanbul is dissected by the fault line between the European and Asian tectonic plates, providing the amusing and entirely accurate terms for areas within the city, “European side” and “Asian side”.  Taksim is a suburb on the European side where young locals enjoy their spare time in trendy cafes down narrow alley ways, up-market clothing stores on the classy main street and off-the-beaten-track restaurants and bars in obscure apartment blocks. Our host expertly guided us through the maze of steep side streets to her favourite restaurant – down an alley way, off a side street and round a corner, through a beaten-up metal door, into a sketchy lift and up to the 6th floor – where we enjoyed real local food that real local people eat. After our meal we were led through more of the maze to some of her favourite night life spots – all completely hidden from the streets and therefore refreshingly void of tourists.

The following night Yalin invited us to join her at a bar in Kadikoy on the Asian side, where her and her dance class were having a Blues night. Once again, what a fabulous insight into Istanbul life, and we got the unexpected opportunity to dabble in the art of Blues dancing. On our way to our evening of dancing we stopped for some street food and sampled a local delicacy. Seafood is very prevalent in Istanbul, and fishing is an integral part of life. The main bridge crossing the Golden Horn in the centre of town is covered all day every day by fishermen, lined up along the edges with boxes and buckets of their catch strewn along the pavement. Seafood is advertised at almost every restaurant and many establishments only sell seafood. We spotted a few blokes standing near the river with trays of mussels, and unlike the roasted chestnut carts which seem to be all over every city in every country, but from which I’ve never seen anyone purchasing anything, these mussel sellers had queues of enthusiastic buyers. We hadn’t summoned the courage to actually try them though until Yalin persuaded us. They are stuffed with a flavoursome rice mixture and the method for eating one is to crack it in half, slot one bit of shell into the other part which is holding the rice/oyster mixture and scoop it into your mouth all at once.

Istanbul is a very water-centric city with two rivers, the Bosphoros and the Golden Horn, running through the centre and a large part of life seeming to revolve around the water. Aside from the afore-mentioned fishing culture and abundance of seafood, not to mention the large amounts of trade that revolve around transportation on the Bosphoros, the ferries that run on both rivers and the cruises for tourists are an important part of Istanbul life. During our stay we enjoyed catching the ferries back and forth between Asia and Europe, never tiring of how humorous it was to change continents several times a day. It did feel a bit odd leaving Trevor in Asia while we explored Europe though.

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