Turkey — Day Three — Istanbul

** As of writing, in Goreme, we are having trouble uploading photos as the wireless internet is sporadic. We’ll try to get the photos all done in a few days, but for now it’s just words. Sorry!

Our second full day in Istanbul, and I slept through the first muzzein (call to prayer). We were up by seven all the same, and after packing up and getting ready, staggered down to another very good breakfast by about 8:30. We spent some time waffling over what to do: try to rush over to Topkapi Palace to see it before the big tourist crush or go to a travel agent to try and book bus or train tickets to Goreme.

Sense won out over unbridled enthusiasm and we went back up to the room to check out Turkey Travel Planner website to find out which travel agent was recommended. Fortunately, the recommended ‘Tur-ista’ travel agency was a short walk away on Divan Yolu Boulevard, right across from the Hippodrome. Davut at Tur-ista was incredibly, profoundly helpful. Mind you, he told us we were pretty much hooped for getting to Goreme on Wednesday night. Every single bus and train car was full due to the upcoming ‘Seker Bayrami’ holiday which marks the end of Ramazan. We could fly direct to Kayseri (about an hour from Goreme) for $150L each on Thursday morning? Yeah… a little rich for our blood. Davut suggested coming back in an hour as one of the companies was maybe going to add an extra bus.

We decided to head over to the Basilica Cistern, as it was only about half a block away and our friends Clay and Penny had highly recommended it. Except for the television in the corner playing a perpetual advertisment for ‘Miniaturk’ (which is exactly what it sounds like), the Basilica was incredible. The lighting was very sympathetic and the hush and murmur of the tourists and dripping water was incredibly peaceful. They were playing a mix cd of random classical music, some of which was very nice (Vivaldi’s Four Seasons), and some of which was a little overly atmospheric (Duh Duh DUHHHHH) vampire soundtrack music.

I read a couple of Australian ladies the entry on Miniaturk from the Lonely Planet and they thought it was hilarious — the LP is a little scathing on the subject. I chatted a bit to one of them who had been to the Rockies in Canada; she said her overwhelming impression of Canada is that it is full of water. For an Australian, I’m sure that’s true.

We enjoyed walking around the cistern — twice — admiring the Medusa heads and the shockingly fat carp. They had a few huge ones that looked just like little grey beluga whales. Since the water is only about 10″ deep, the fish are clearly visible. The occasional hint of golden or glittering white koi was very beautiful.

After the cistern, we headed back to Tur-ista, where Davut was sad to advise the bus was not forthcoming. He recommended, given that we had a month and were not in a big hurry, to instead take the sleeper train to Ankara that night, spend the day and night in Ankara, and catch a bus to Goreme on Nevsiher Bus Lines on Friday morning. Davut then booked the train, made reservations on the bus (under the name Jennifer), booked our hotel in Ankara (the Ogulturk Hotel), then booked two nights at a pension in Goreme and two tours of Cappadocia! We hadn’t been planning on taking tours, but Ugur from the restaurant the night before had recommended we take tours, and he had no vested interest in selling us one. Interestingly enough, the tour company we were booked with was the exact same one I had corresponded with over email during the summer.

Everything except the bus fare was included in the price of 285L per person: 50L per perso for the train (private first class sleeping car), 50E for the hotel in Ankara (100L), 60L per person per day for the tours so 120L for both days, and whatever is left over for the two nights in the pension in Goreme. The pension wasn’t listed in the LP but we decided to take a chance.

Davut needed a few hours or so to write up our vouchers, so we decided to head over to the Government Ministry of Tourism Carpet Shop which happends to be located in the exquisite Baths of Lady Hurrem, which is in the park between the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia. Just after arriving, I wanted a washroom, so I headed around the back where the tuvalet apparently was. On my way, a man with a shop stopped me on the street. When I indicated what I wanted, he asked me to follow him… to the Yesil Ev, which is a beautiful boutique hotel right beside the Baths. The guard unlocked the door to the basement bathroom (which was solid marble). When I emerged, the man with the shop asked me if everything was ok, and invited me to shop at his store when we returned to Istanbul.

I found Steve in the Baths, being given the stinkeye by the guards who were also minding the store. To say they were not doing a hard sell would not really describe it: they were almost completely uninterested in us. We walked through the baths, which were built by Sinan, Istanbul’s most famous architect, in 1556 or so. They were absolutely magnificent, with marble and arches and pierced ceilings that looked like stars. The carpets were nice too, but absolutely out of our price range.

From the Baths, we stopped in a cafe right next door called Dervish, where we thought we’d get a drink. In a fit of bravery, we decided to try ‘aryan’ which is a yoghurt drink which we were expecting to be much like lhassi, the Indian yoghurt drink we both like. Yeah, not so much — aryan is salty and bitter and not very nice. To add insult to injury, the young waiter came by and asked for 10 lira, when we knew full well the bill should be five. We insisted and he capitulated, but this was so far the only time we felt as if someone was trying to take advantage.

We left the cafe early and were going to wander back over to the Arasta Bazaar, when we were greeted by a tout who had spoken to us at the Blue Mosque the day before. He was very nice, and offered to take us to a carpet store. We explained (again) that we were not going to buy on this trip as we needed to determine what our budget would be at the end of the trip. Still, it seemed like a good idea to look at more carpets, and we had no other plans, so we assented.

We were led to a little store on the edge of the Arasta Bazaar where we met with the limpest salesman we had ever seen. Perhaps it was because we were up front about not buying, perhaps he was weak from hunger due to Ramazan fasting… perhaps because we refused tea (being unpleasantly full of aryan), but he was so languid it’s a wonder he didn’t slide right off the couch. (We suspect he was stoned.) We looked at some lovely kilims that were about 700L, but none of them appealed. There were smaller carpets like runners that were lovely and about 480, so it was comforting to know there were lots of pieces in a variety of ranges.

After fleeing the carpet store, we got ourselves our first ‘magnum’, an ice-cream-on-a-stick that was simply heavenly. We wandered the bazaar looking at the pretty things and eating our icecream. We chatted with a man with a shop full of the standard tourist fare — glass ‘evil eyes’, backgammon boards, jewellery — the usual. He brought out a little bowl with safety pins with tiny eye beads on them and asked us to each take one as his gift to us. After turning around at the back of the row, we bought an evil eye (they’re actually meant to protect AGAINST evil spirits) from the nice man for one lira.

The Arasta Bazaar was still full of kitties, and I could see why. Most shops had a little bowl of cat food and water out for the very sleek moggies. I only saw one that looked like it could have used some medical attention, which is pretty good considering they were mostly strays.

At the top end of the Arasta Bazaar, where the stalls were a little ratty, we found the most gorgeous silver-grey cat sprawled out on a silver and grey blanket. We couldn’t resist taking lots of pictures of him and after a while, a young man came out of the shop nearby.

“You like cat? I sell to you. Cheap shipping.”

It turns out the cat was the man’s special pet, and the cat’s name was ‘Jedi’ which is a very appropriate name for a cat, if you think about it. We chatted to the young man for a while, which was interesting as he had a huge air of sadness around him, though he was very friendly. He wouldn’t let us take his picture with Jedi, but handed the cat to me, so Steve took our picture. The man then took us into his shop to show us a photograph of him with his most favourite cat, who died eight years ago. It was very sad and strange and sweet. We bid Jedi and his owner goodbye, and headed across the park to Tur-ista.

Davut had come through, and gave us our train tickets plus vouchers for the various activities and hotels. We were back on the street in minutes (happy birthday, Davut!) and decided to have lunch. While perusing the LP for a likely spot, we realized we were right in front of #12 Divan Yolu, which is a little lokanta noted for its kofte, or meatballs. We sat down to a plate of very tasty, very greasy meatballs with banana peppers (which I gave to Steve). The meal was some 20L, which was quite reasonable for Sultanahmet, as far as we could tell. There were plenty of cheap (1.5L) doner places closer to the Grand Bazaar, but Sultanahmet seemed expensive to us.

After lunch and some people-watching in the park, we went back to the hotel, where they had kept our bags. Ugur greeted us by name as we headed up the street to the tram station.

We took the tram down through Eminonu and across the Galata Bridge. When we reached the far side, we followed the locals down some stairs into… a gun market! Guns, including machine guns, were laid out in shops just as ordinary as can be — we were quite surprised and more than a little nervous. We hustled out of there and ended up on the water’s edge on the west side of the bridge. Further along was a ferry dock (not the one we needed to cross the Bosphorus to Haydarpasha Train Station) and a bunch of stalls selling raw fish and seafood.

Needless to say, there were cats. Lots of hopeful-looking cats. I saw one cute moment where a suit-clad businessman, complete with briefcase, stopped on his commute home to pet a random hopeful cat.

As raw fish held little appeal at this point, we decided to see if we could find a snack under the bridge. The Galata Bridge is a car-bridge with sidewalks covered in fishermen who sell their catch to the fish-sandwich sellers. The lower level has restaurants and cafes. We walked up one side, and found the area… distasteful. The cafes were overpriced and frankly, a little scary. It felt like a rough neighbourhood, so we quickly went to the other side of the bridge, where our ferry terminal was.

At the terminal, we communicated with sign-language, our Turkish baby-talk and a pen & paper to the guy at the snack-shop in order to find out when and where the ferry left from. We also got some snacks for the trip, including cherry juice and simit to share. We noticed that the further you get from Sultanahmet, the cheaper simit was (two for a lira!). It was about six pm, and though our train didn’t leave until 10:30pm, we didn’t want to be making this trip tired — better to hang out at the train station for a few hours.

Getting on the ferry was nothing like the well-regimented Seabus, where you can’t even exit the building until all the ramps are in place. First, there were only two rather rickety wooden ramps. Second, everyone ignored them (except us lawful Canadians). People just jumped over the gap without a care in the world.

We took seats by the window, but the ferry filled up fast. Steve went out to the covered open area and took photos of the sun setting over Sultanahmet, which was truly beautiful. Too bad seagulls kept cluttering up his photographs! There are lots of seagulls in Istanbul.

The ferry stopped briefly, and it took us a few minutes to realize this might be our stop (we didn’t hear any announcements). We asked the guy across the aisle if this was Haydarpasa and he replied ‘evet’ which is yes. We grabbed our bags and ran off the ferry as fast as we could, leaping across the gap between ferry and dock just like a local!

The train station, Haydarpasa, is some 50 feet from the ferry terminal, and is unmistakable. It was a gift to the Turks from the Germans, who built most of the railways. (Guide books say that the Germans were paid by the mile, so the train routes tend to be very, very meandering.) The station is beautiful in a heavy, German neo-gothic way.

The information people told us that they wouldn’t know what platform to load from until 9:30, so we found an open restaurant in the train station in which to while away three hours. Even though we weren’t very hungry, having just shared some simit, we ordered meses (appetizers) from the menu. The waiter waived off our orders, and told us to go to the front display case and pick our choices. Why did you give us menus, then? We were getting a little tired and cranky.

The food was good; we ate slowly and drank many cups of tea until finally it was time to board. We got some extra water from a seller (water is ‘su’), and boarded the train on Platform 9 (not 9 3/4, unfortunately), and got our first taste of the sleeper car. It was great! There were two bunks that folded out on top of the very comfy seats. There was a little cabinet under a table, and another cabinet with tiny fridge that came stocked with crackers, juice, water and chocolate bars! There was also a little sink, with a sign saying ‘don’t drink the water’.

We stayed up until 11pm, watching the suburbs of Istanbul roll by. There was a brief break while men with flashlights ran up and down the track while we sat in the middle of nowhere; turns out the child of a passenger had pulled the emergency brake! Hee hee.

The bunks were too small to sleep together, but we held hands between the bunks while we got sleepy. We had changed the pillow-ends around so that we could look out the windows while we drifted off. A little gravol was used for its intended purpose, this time. We were asleep in our very comfy bunks, nestled in crisp white sheets, before midnight. A new train-travel convert! It all felt so darn civilized.

On our first day in Istanbul, we learned the most important words: tesekkir adirim for ‘thank you’ and lutfen for ‘please’. Today we learned visne for cherry juice, bir for one, semit for bread ring and a few other food-words. Need more vocabulary!

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