Turkey — Day Twenty-six — Istanbul (oud shopping)

Friday, November 2, 2007

We woke early to the endless suburbs of Istanbul rolling by. Breakfast was decent enough, though not quite as good as on the Ankara run – ah, back in the land of salami slice on the breakfast plate! We were back in our cabin in time to pack up and watch the blue Marmara sea disappear behind football stadiums and industrial parks.

We pulled into the train station and discovered the bad thing about first class: the sleepers had been at the ass end of the train the whole time, keeping away from the noisy engine, but now they were the furthest from the exit, and we felt every inch of the marble-covered platform as we pulled the RSFH the length of the train. Knowing that this was the easy stretch didn’t exactly help.

We exited onto the street and went to the same ferry dock that we had arrived at, some twenty-four days earlier. Breakfast was not so decent that we didn’t pick up two simit on the ferry dock. Fifty kuruş each: we must be in Istanbul.

Manoeuvring the RSFH through the turnstile along with about one hundred irritable Istanbullus commuters sucked.

Launching it and us onto the ferry sucked a little more. We had repacked it to be a little lighter, but that meant we had the RSFH and an equally heavy duffle bag full of carpet. With our packs, that meant that we had two pieces of luggage each, which wouldn’t have been so bad except that the considerable weight of the carpet bag (ha ha) slowly cut off the fingers of the wielder, and the RSFH often required one person at one end and the other person at the other end to lift it over, say, the gap between the dock and the ferry. It was challenging. Did I mention one hundred irritable commuters? Yeah.

I’m being overly dramatic – while getting ON the ferry was a challenge, once we were on, people very nicely made room for us and our irritating luggage.

Even though I was a little trepidatious about being back in Istanbul, armed with teşekkür ederim and lütfen, even with our RSFH, things seemed easier. Well, except for the lifting part.

Rinse and repeat for offloading, with the addition of the gap we had to leap over as it took so long to get the luggage to the door that the ferry was just about pulling away… very exciting!

When we got to Karakoy on the European side, we at least knew approximately where we were heading: back to the Galata Bridge, through the underpass (scary), right at the fish market (smelly… ok, not really), right into the gun bazaar (scary… really!) and up the stairs (hernia!) to the Beyoglu tram station, where we purchased two tokens and joined a whole new set of irritated commuters trying to get onto the trams.

We just managed to get all the bags off the tram at the Sultanahmet stop and stopped to regroup on the sidewalk. I’m still not sure how we managed it (certainly parts of it have been blocked from my memory), but we lugged all that crap to the hotel over endless miles of cobbled sidewalks. Actually it wasn’t miles – the hotel was just as close as advertised. The Med Cezir is basically opposite the Four Seasons, just down the street from the Baths Of Lady Hürrem and around the corner from one of the ‘Ev’ hotels. It’s in good company!

From the outside, the cheerfully-painted Med Cezir looked like it belonged – a pale lemon-yellow building with a cute little café-style restaurant on the left and the hotel entrance on the right.

We staggered into the hallway that led to the admissions desks where we were kindly, and amusedly, greeted by Erol, the owner. The kindness seemed very typical of him, the amusement mostly generated by the fact that we now had to carry the luggage up three narrow, spiralling sets of stairs to the third floor where our room was. Yay! The first flight was fairly normal, the second, a little tighter and steeper. The third flight of stairs was just as steep and incredibly narrow at the top, and the light in the hallway was controlled by a motion detector that unexpectedly turned off after there had been no movement for, say, twenty seconds. Pretty much the amount of time required to find one’s key, for instance, or to take a breather after hauling a large and unwieldy suitcase up three flights of stairs.

After waving our way down the hallway to get the light on, we made our way into the room, and were pleasantly surprised. There was a double bed, a reading lamp (our first in Turkey), a wardrobe, and a pile of clean towels on the bed. After doing a recon in the hallway, we found two bathrooms to serve three bedrooms: one was possessed of a half-sized bath with shower and the other was a powder room. There were actual little hotel soaps (which we ignored, preferring our Tire olive oil soap during our quick showers) and plenty of spare tp. Everything was spotlessly clean, if not glamorous.

This was so worth the 60YTL per night we were paying: the room was good, the stairs were… healthy, and the location was un-freaking-believable, as we realized when we abandoned our luggage, walked back down the stairs and twenty short steps into the park I only know as Sultanahmet Park between the breathtaking Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque.

Steve wanted to be sure we got to Beyoglu today to check out the street of music shops. We had asked Erol if he knew of anywhere to go and he had told us, being an oud and guitar player himself, which streets to visit.

We first headed over to the Divan Yolu where we veered off onto a sidestreet and walked a block to a small music shop. The shopkeeper was nice, but not very interested in us, which was fair, as his ouds were nice but not very interesting.

The tram station was close and we had the hang of getting our tokens, so it took no time at all before we were whisking across the Galata Bridge. Just for the sake of entertainment, we decided to deliberately miss the Beyoglu stop and got off at the next one down the line, where we walked back along the street to the bottom of the hill we were to walk up the street of music. We passed storefronts full of Vespas (Alex would have just died) and sidewalks full of astonished Istanbullus (we weren’t in a tourist area) before we found ourselves at the bottom of a fan of streets spreading up the hill above us.

We knew we had to walk up Yüksek Kaldırım Caddesi which would turn into Galip Dede Caddesi, which is the street of the musical instruments. Yüksek Kaldırım was easy enough to find, now that I had the hang of finding the street signs high up on the building on the left corner of the street. From my up-since-six-am perspective, however, it didn’t look all that easy to walk up. From sea-level, the streets of Beyoglu head straight up the hill – there is the Tünel that can take you up from near the tram station to the top of the hill at the end of Istiklal Caddesi, but that would have bypassed the entire street of the musical instruments. We needed to walk up.

Daunted, we stopped to take a look at the street signs to make sure this was actually the right street and were promptly accosted by a döner seller. We weren’t a hard sell, as the tavuk on the pole looked fantastic and the price was just a few lira. We sat under some trees at little tables with little umbrellas and a very aggressive, skinny little cat. He ended up with quite a bit of my tavuk, but his kitty desperation when the food was gone was heartbreaking. It was hard to reconcile the thousands of starving strays creeping around Istanbul: you just wouldn’t see that in Canada. Instead, they would be rounded up and sent to the SPCA where some of them would be adopted into loving homes, and others would be put to sleep. Which is best? In Istanbul they have a chance, I guess, especially with soft-hearted turists possessed of a liberal hand with the tavuk.

Full and fortified, we headed up the caddesi, stopping in what seemed like every musical instrument shop along the way. Now I know how Steve feels when he’s tagging along with my shopping! Only when I’m shopping, we’re not brought constant cups of tea and invitations to sit and visit. Well, not everywhere was that friendly, but most shopkeepers were very pleasant and they all seemed pleasantly surprised that Steve could illicit vaguely appropriate noises from the ouds he tried. Every so often he would also pick up a guitar and blow them away.

We finally found a shop where the ouds were better than good and the salespeople were very nice. Since a lot of this trip was paid for by an inheritance from Steve’s grandmother, and she would have wanted him to have a musical keepsake from it and her, we had kept money aside specifically for an oud. The one that Steve liked the best was a little higher than his budget, but I kindly offered to put his Christmas present money towards it! Suitably revenged for his offers regarding the kilim we bought in Selçuk, Steve decided to bite the bullet and get the one he wanted. Purporting to need some time to think on it, we left the shop and decided to head uphill a bit to see what we could see.

After what was actually a very short time and an easy hike, we came to an open square which marked the start of the Istiklal Caddesi, a long pedestrian-only street which lead eventually to Taksim Square and which seemed to be Istanbul’s answer to Vancouver’s Robson Street. This was also where the Tünel ended up, so I think the neighbourhood is also known as Tünel.

There was a little tram that appeared every so often, carrying the lazy or footsore down Istiklal Caddesi. We didn’t really feel like doing the full-on stroll as dark was coming on and the tram never seemed to be leaving when we weren’t busy looking at something interesting. Not to put too fine a point on it, but the street looked like it was mostly occupied by the young, hip and terminally fashionable. Besides, right in the little square we could see a few little art galleries and went to look for post-cards or other interesting things.

We sure did find interesting things – copies of old lithographs of the city, decorated words in Arabic script, sketches of dervishes and a bunch of delicate watercolour Istanbul skylines with pen & ink boats and seagulls in the foreground. Lovely things! We were delighted to find out that the prices were very reasonable for original works: even though they were made very much to a formula, the execution was still quite wonderful. When we told the shopkeeper that the frames (brown) and matts (not white) weren’t to our taste, he offered to have his wife come to the shop and do some custom frames for us. Even with the custom framing, the price were still very reasonable, so we assessed our Christmas gift needs and picked out a half-dozen paintings.

By the time our order was framed, wrapped and bagged, it was almost full dark, and we had quite a distance to get back to our pension. On the upside, the walk down Galip Dede Caddesi was much easier than going up, and we passed amazing sights including the Galata Tower and cars attempting to drive down a street full of people. We stopped in at the music shop and purchased the oud, which Steve cradled like a babe for the rest of the night.

I couldn’t resist the sight of an open shop manually squeezing fresh orange juice where you could buy a glass for a lira, so we stopped for juice. Steve declined, as his hands were full of oud, but I found it delicious and worth every penny.

Back down the hill, back on the tram, back to Sultanahmet – we felt like old hats at this and my enjoyment of Istanbul increased with every step on a marble paving stone I took. I was no longer overwhelmed by touts and trams and every little thing; more comfortable with Turkish and the Turks, I finally felt able to handle and truly enjoy this amazing city.

We strolled into the Med Cezir with our purchases in hand. Erol and his assistant, Sabo (which means ‘loyalty’ in… Kurdish? we were proudly advised by the young man in question) were delighted to see us. They fixed us some very passable mezes at a fairly reasonable price (by Sultanahmet standards) and watched Steve explore his oud.

It had been a long, long day and we weren’t really up to going out or even visiting that much. We hauled our very sorry rear ends up the stairs, waved at the motion light, got out our keys, waved at the light again and were in our room, soon to bed. It only took a second or two before we realized that the ‘double’ bed was actually two twins pushed together. The foam topper helped a little, but it still wasn’t as perfectly comfortable as it might have been, with a bit of a raised seam where the beds joined. That said, we had no regrets and we felt that we were very lucky to have come across this particular pension; we snuggled across the seam and slept very well.

Turkey — Day One — Istanbul

On Sunday afternoon, John drove us to the airport in plenty of time. Apart from the incredulity of the Lufthansa agent who didn’t actually believe that we didn’t have any checked luggage, and not having reserved seats (which meant we had to hold hands across the aisle during takeoff), everything was grand. We ate very mediocre lunch at the airport Milestones, and called my folks on Skype from the restaurant, which was cool. Ah, nerds!

We flew out as scheduled. Fortunately, the Nice German Lady who was sitting beside Steve gave us her seat an hour or so into the flight, so we were able to sit together after all. By the way, the food on Lufthansa was just delicious! It very much dispelled those rumours of horrible airplane food. The flight attendants tried to give us a bottle of wine to enjoy later (happy honeymoon!) but they realized we had a connecting flight so instead gave us a couple of tiny bottles to enjoy with… breakfast! We happily made mimosas out of our morning OJ and toasted the beginning of our trip. We also gave a glass to the Nice German Lady for giving up her seat.

The hop over to Turkey was just fine (and the food was good, too) but we were very, very tired. Veeeerrrry tiiiiiiired. We knew the flight to Turkey would be long and annoying, but you’re never really prepared.

Once deplaned, we got our Visas ($60 US each!) and entered the long and winding line for passport control. Fortunately it was a quick line, because it was also very warm.

As soon as we got through, we found ourselves facing a wall of people waving signs for ‘Mr. John Smith’ and ‘Global Something-or-other Convention’. It was liberating to walk on by on our way to the LRT train to take us into town. On the way into the station, the down escalator wasn’t functional: it felt much like Vancouver!

Buying a jeton was a little tough, as we kept waiting our turn and people kept moving in front of us. It took no time at all to realize we just had to barge in like everyone else and we had our jetons in hand. Rinse and repeat for getting our token into the turnstile, but we were through soon enough. Stupid Canadian manners!

Interesting fact – there are no maps or anything useful to give directions (in English anyway) on the LRT. However, this was made almost entirely irrelevant by the fact that there were almost no signs, either. We were able to figure out where to switch from LRT to tram (at the station starting with ‘z’).   Switching was easy too — out one door, onto a platform, into another door.  

Here is a map to make life easier for other people.

It was interesting to take the train in from the airport, which is 20 or so kilometres out of town: lots of new corporate buildings, with older residential buildings in various states of repair. Some looked completely bombed out, sitting right next to lovely brightly painted ones. There were mosques and minarets everywhere you looked, and there were Mercedes on the road and people camped under overpasses.

The tram ride was long and crowded, but the worst was the niggling doubt that we were on the right line. Finally! the sign said Sultanahmet, and we were assisted off the train by a nice man who told everyone to get out of our way. An English-speaking fellow at the back told Steve that he was a big man and should just push his way off!

Upon stepping out of the tram, this was our view: the Blue Mosque just on the other side of the Hippodrome.

Arriving at the Hippodrome in Sultanahmet was absolutely magical: it was just about six in the evening and we walked up a cobblestone walk and down some stone steps and over there and around the corner… and we were completely lost. Completely and utterly lost. There were beautiful old houses all around and narrow streets and fast, honking cars and no sidewalks. Did I mention there are no street signs? Street signs would have been helpful, since it’s hard to orient yourself when you don’t know where you are. Finally we asked a man playing backgammon to show us on our Lonely Planet map the way to our guesthouse but his friend came out with another map and showed us exactly where to go. It wasn’t far, but we were still weren’t where we thought we might have been.

The man asked us if we wanted to come into his shop to look around but we said we’d been travelling for seventeen hours. With a smile and an affable wave he said “Tomorrow then. If you can find us.”

We walked a short distance through the most interesting architecture. Some of the old wooden houses were just shells: when you looked through the windows, you saw the sky right through where the roof had been. Others were pristine and gleaming, freshly stained and well-loved. Everywhere we looked we saw kitties and beautiful little details like wrought iron grills and carved doors. It was amazing. And distracting, because we became – not lost, exactly – but a little disoriented.

We looked enough disoriented that another nice man offered to look at our map and told us our guesthouse was just around the corner. He offered that if it wasn’t to our liking, he could offer us a room for 20 Euros (since the room we reserved was 40, that sounded pretty good, especially as he was standing in front of a lovely hotel). We arrived at the Nayla Palace, and were told that we were a day late for our reservation, and they had rented the room. We were offered a room in the basement that smelled strongly of mould for the same price. We apologized for our error on the dates and declined the new room.

Back around the corner, we found our guy again. He asked how many nights we were staying and told us he had a nicer hotel in mind for us. He then took off at a run that didn’t look like a run, but we had to run to keep up (ok, I did). Man that guy moved fast! We ran up the road past the Arasta Bazaar, past the Blue Mosque, past the Hagia Sofia, past the Basilica Cistern (it was like having a very fast, silent tour guide) and finally to a little hotel called the ‘Hotel Anodolu’ on a steep cobbled street on the north side of Sultanahmet. He showed us a room with two single beds, and a double with a tiny little window, and then took us to the motherlode: a room with two singles and a double, and – best of all – a door to a rooftop deck with a view of the Golden Horn, the Hagia Sofia and a tiny perfect mosque just across a parking lot.

We haggled a bit and got the best room for just under 50 Euros a night, which was fine given our time constraints and the fact that we really, really liked it. The guy, Nazur, also said that he “had a brother in Cappadocia” who could give us a tour, and he wanted to see us again in the morning to talk about us booking some tours from him. Yeah, sure… Really, we’re only here for two nights, so worst case scenario was that we stay two nights and move on. Nazur did promise that if we came back in a month, he’d give us a much better deal.

We used some of the Lira (which are indicated by Y not $) we were given as a wedding present to pay our first night and said we’d be back with the next night later on.

When we were upstairs, in possession of the heaviest brass keyfob ever, we looked out over the view and knew we had made the right choice. There are only three rooms on the top floor, and we had it all to ourselves. The view of the golden light on the Golden Horn was just unbelievable and the lights on the bright white cruise ships glittered like diamonds.

After a quick shower, I felt refreshed, so we headed back to tourist central, stopping at a ‘bankomat’ for some cash, which worked no problem. We had been quite concerned, since our savings were in our Credit Union account, that we wouldn’t be able to readily access our money. Apparently our fears were unfounded, especially the fears about the safety of bank machines… this one, the Tourist Bank, was right next to the police station and had a young man in uniform holding an AK47 like it was no big deal.  We walked into the booth like it was no big deal, too, then grabbed our cash and sauntered away… like it was no big deal.

The Hippodrome was all very surreal as the area was just packed for Ramazan – people were out in force for prayer, picnics and promenading all over the grounds of the Blue Mosque. We were so dazzled by the food choices that we couldn’t decide, so we ended up with two fresh pretzels and a cup of pomegranite juice to share.

Note to self – don’t pet the rabbits. We were walking past a card table with a mum bunny and her babies. When I stopped to ooh and aww, I was handed a baby bunny to distract me while the man had the mother pick a little piece of paper from a tray of folded bits of paper. Apparently the bunny picked our fortune, and those fortunes were worth 2Y each! Fortunately they were good fortunes, and I got to hold a baby bunny. Cheap thrills!

We passed a number of police, though the crowd was very jovial – we felt incredibly safe walking around. The police carry their machine guns very casually!

There were kitties everywhere, playing and stalking, and a number of unleashed dogs, all on good behaviour.

Even at 8pm it was quite warm, and I was wishing I had brought another cotton long-sleeved top, since I felt quite bare in t-shirt and capris, compared to the other strollers. Bringing only one long-sleeved top and a polarfleece was not good packing: I’d have been better off with more lightweight long-sleeved clothes. Ah well, an excuse for shopping!

We walked by the Blue Mosque, which was full of the devout. We knew coming during Ramazan would be a little crazy, but this really had a festival feel.

I find it quite wonderful that the Blue Mosque is still actually used for its intended purpose.

We headed back to the hotel room, thoroughly dazzled, and brushed our teeth to the combined sounds of the call to prayer being amplified from every minaret in town and dogs howling at every minaret in town! It was eerie and beautiful and very, very funny. Awwoooooooo!

We took gravol to help us sleep and were in bed by 9pm. A very satisfying first day in Istanbul!

This was our view of the Hagia Sofia from our terrace: