Istanbul 2010

Arriving

We arrive in Istanbul about 36 hours after we left ChCh. Tired, but good. I have to pee and in the toilet I see this sign.

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We have a cup of coffee and I phone the hotel to ask what time we can check in. It is 9:00am. The hotel say that we can have our room at 10:00am.

We negotiate a taxi and as we are getting in, the taxi driver is getting directions from another driver. We get the strong impression that he hasn’t driven a taxi before, at least not in Istanbul. Eventually we drive off and it soon becomes obvious that his previous occupation was as a Formula 1 racing driver.

We drive through a modern cityscape, endless building and construction all around. It looks like a very go ahead place. We pass men planting flowers along the highway.newcity

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We pass through the gates to the old city and things change. Huge mosques are glimpsed through gaps in the buildings, the roads become very narrow, in spite of this the traffic goes no slower.

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The driver meanwhile has stopped and programmed his GPS and so we seem to be going somewhere other than the graveyard with his driving. From watching other drivers it soon became clear that to drive in Istanbul required three things, a cigarette in one hand, a cell phone stuck to your ear with the other hand and no seat belt.

We get to the hotel and soon fall fast asleep. The hotel restaurant is on the roof and we take the included breakfast up there.

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Istanbul straddles the Straits of Bosporus. The hotel overlooks the straits. We could see lots of ships at anchor ready to go either down to the Mediterranean via the Sea of Marmara or up to the Black Sea.

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While looking out I wonder about the Crusaders, it was around this week 806 years ago that they were laying siege to this very area where I am having breakfast. They came here on horseback with a huge entourage on a quest of religious madness that we can only speculate about. Bear in mind that Instanbul was already civilised in a way that the smelly, flea and lice infested invading horde could never imagine. It was here that the English were introduced to soap and the concept of bathing and personal hygiene amongst other things.

Sweet Tooth.

You could say that the Turks have a sweet tooth. The place has plenty of bakers shops selling very sweet cakes and slices. I did catch myself looking at the cakes and slices and saying to myself, “the same as at home” then realising that all the cakes we think of as ours came from here in the fist place! Another one of the many things both tangible and intangible the Crusaders took back to England.

Later we have dinner at the hotel restaurant on the roof. The food is amazingly tasty, the tomatoes actually taste of tomatoes. We opt for the buffet dinner and eat plenty. There is a separate table just for the desserts. The Turks like to soak things in honey, take baklava which appears to be crushed almonds in layers of filo pastry soaked, quite literally, in honey. When you cut into it the honey just pours out. Apart from baklava there are huge dried figs, small round cakes that appear deep fried then soaked in honey, small pastries that have an almond in the centre and imitate the figs and they are sokaed in syrup. There are at least four different variations on these plus brandy cake, thick chocolate mousse and just in case that didn’t hit the spot there is also a very large bowl of sugar right in the middle of the table.

The Squirty Toilet.

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As a race that never even had soap, some of the more intimate details of personal hygiene probably went over the heads of the Crusaders. It didn’t surprise me to see the squirty toilet even though I had never seen this design before, having previously seen the various washing attachments to toilets in Malaysia, Singapore and Morocco. The water is controlled by a small tap to the right of the toilet. It took some manoeuvering to get the whole thing worked out and along the way I discovered that if you get the water pressure just right the stream of water misses your landing gear and spurts through that tiny gap between the toilet bowl and the toilet seat and fills your underpants with water, so after washing the unmentionables it even washes your smalls, now that’s what I call efficiency.

Faces.

Initial impressions are of many different racial types in the faces of the Turkish people. I can see the high slavic cheek bones of more eastern races, dark swarthy Mediteranean types, typical Moslem faces and many white European faces that can be seen on any British high street or even fitting you up with a suit in Burtons. The noses are prominent in many men and there are some huge conks to be seen.

Impressions

By and large everyone seems very friendly and ready to smile in an instant. Surprisingly, no-one hassles us as we walk around. We walk along the sea front where people are swimming, fishing and generally hanging out with a very relaxed and laid back air about things. All kinds of bread are being sold from barrow type stalls. Nuts, fruit and sunfower seeds too. Small charcoal fires abound as folks are cooking things for lunch as we pass. Lots of people fish at every available fishing place, it seems to be a popular pastime.

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The Calling of the Faithful

5 times a day the faithful are called to prayer by the muezzin. In the old days they used to climb the towers of the mosque and call out for real. Now they use huge amplified speakers. Given how many mosques there are, and how close they all are to each other, the  Azanz calls to prayer all run simultaneously. Depending or your physical location in relation to the mosques this can seem either like a cacophony or a symphony.

The Writer in Residence
I saw this in a park near a government office that lots of people were going in and out of.

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I saw people coming to him with letters that he would read then put some paper in the typewriter then type out some kind of letter or form which they would then take to the government office. Seemed like a good job as he spent most of his time talking to people. Notice the cat.

Cats

Everywhere we went we saw cats, some flea bitten mangy things and other just ordinary looking cats. There were LOTS of cats in Istanbul. What was interesting was that we saw people feeding them. I never once saw a person shoo one away. I noticed that they had none of the shyness or reticence that usually shows on stray cats. They seemed to be universally liked. On the street where we stayed there was a butchers shop that had chunks of meat outside for the cats to eat. This is from another person wondering about the place of cats:

Cats have a special place in Islam. Mohammed was a big cat lover, as were several other important Muslim religious figures. So teachings about cats are plentiful in Islam, and they’re nearly always about the goodness of cats. One story is how Mohammed so loved his cat that, when the cat fell asleep on his sleeve, Mohammed cut off the sleeve rather than to bother his little friend. A cat supposedly saved Mohammed at some point, too. But I don’t remember that story. There are stories of people who died and went to hell specifically because of their poor treatment of cats. And it’s especially good luck if you spot a cat sleeping on the grave of a loved one. One of the first things I remember being lovingly taught was that it was a big, big, big sin to hit a cat.
I also noticed that we hardly saw a dog in a city that size.

The Oldest Shopping Mall On Earth

The Grand Bazaar is like a maze of incredibly colourful rat tunnels. It is hard to convey the size of the place as it all the images look small and nothing much. It goes on for miles and even then you get the impression that you are still missing whole parts of it.

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hats anyone?

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It is not until we got here that we start to get barracked by calls of men asking us to buy carpets, hats, ceramics, jewellery, socks, underwear etc etc. In spite of that they seem quite willing to take No for an answer and I soon discover that a smile and a No get a smile back. I cannot help but to like these people and this grows more as time passes.

The Spice Market

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The Trip Up The Straits of Bosporus

One afternoon we get a boat ride up the Straits of Bosporus. There is no tourist guide monologue just lots of time to gawk and stare. The first thing that strikes the eye is just how many mosques dominate the skyline and just how big they are.
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These are all on the European side of Istanbul, across the water is the Asian continent. Along the way we see more mosques. This was my favourite:

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After an hour or so we stop. I thought the guy said that we were spending an hour at an ancient place. What he actually said was that we were stopping at an Asian place which in reality was more like being dropped off in Chigwell High Street for an hour!

On the way back we pass under a bridge that has a row of fish restaurants below the roadway. On the road way above are heaps of people fishing
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Unbelievable

Everyone drives as fast as they possibly can and the sound of horns blaring is everywhere although no-one seems worked up about it. After the initial impression of utter chaos you begin to notice that all the cars are very modern and not full of dings and scratches so obviously they have a different way of driving.

We are standing on a traffic island waiting to cross 2 lanes packed with fast moving traffic. A taxi is parked in the kerb on the far side of the two lanes of fast moving traffic. Seemingly without warning he puts his arm out of the window and swings his taxi across not only across the two lanes of traffic but to actually swing right round so he is going back against the flow only to swing round the traffic island we are standing on and straight into the fast moving traffic behind us. As he swings out horns blare but as if by magic the two lanes of traffic stop dead and he is gone, it is all over in a second. Alison and I are standing there with our mouths open and she says, “Unbelievable”.

A Turkish man standing next to us laughs and says “Turkish driving, no-one cares”. We laugh. He says, “Watch” and he just puts his hand out like Moses at the Red Sea and the two lanes of fast moving traffic screeches to a stop so we can cross the road! We run across and as soon as we are over the traffic roars on. I stop to turn and wave to him, he laughs and waves back. Unbelievable it surely is.

The Eco Bus

We go to a bus station to buy a ticket for Bulgaria. The bus station looks a bit like a movie set for a film about Afghanistan. We get directed or to be more precise shoved into a grimy office to be confronted by that guy who played the bad cop in Midnight Express and he hadn’t washed since then either.
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We get two tickets in names that barely resemble our own with the price of 50 lira overwritten by hand with 60 lira
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 Departure

We get on the bus in the middle of a huge downpour and sit in the stifling heat for around an hour until the bus leaves Istanbul at 3pm sharp and heads off on an 8 hour journey to Varna in Bulgaria or as the Turks call it Bulgaristan!

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The bus is full of Romanian clothes smugglers, we discover this as two guys come along the bus giving everyone (except us) a plastic shopping bag that contained a leather jacket. It appeared that everyone was encouraged to have a look at it. I presume that in the event of a search they could at least describe what was in the bag.

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Sights from the window

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At a certain point we are going quite fast along a motorway when the bus begins to slow, I look ahead to see a man standing under the motorway bridge. The bus pulls up and the back door opens and in he jumps and we pull away once more to speed along the motorway. This all happened in the blink of an eye and I thought I saw something else but it was too fast to see what it was. The next time we had an unscheduled stop I turned round to watch what was happening. As the person jumped on, the conductor threw the rubbish bag out the door just as it closed.

We get to the border

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While waiting for the passports to be processed I notice a statue that you would see face on if you were coming into Turkey

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It is Ataturk the father of modern Turkey. It was interesting to see his portrait everywhere we went and people seemed to hold him in genuine reverence, even young people. However, one of my desires while in Turkey was to buy a genuine Turkish Fez. It was dear Ataturk that made them illegal in the Hat Law of 1925. He was quite a guy and when I read what he accomplished I forgave him for the lack of Fez’s. I did see some in the bazaar but they were badly made and just for the tourists.

Looking back as we eventually drove to the Bulgarian border his statue was the last thing I saw of Turkey.