Turkey

DestinationsThe BalkansTurkey

Istanbul Revisited

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There are probably many existing copies of the Ayasofya and the Blue Mosque that I have in my photo database, but I took more yet again, in the hope of getting clear shots during a rare, clear winter day. The weather was for most part, as irritatingly cold and damp as I remembered, and did wonders in exacerbating TC’s cough and foul temper.

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Istanbul was meant to be our last stop, and a last-minute, relaxing, browsing and shopping one at that – for me at least. Having covered the ‘necessary sights’ the first time around 2 years ago, the game plan was to catch a couple of things that were missed the previous time around like the book bazaar, eating at the Lokantasi, visiting Suleymaniye Mosque.

We landed at night, and found the place (downhill on cobblestones!) we were staying at after much huffing, puffing and asking around. TC, on the other hand, gave himself impromptu Turkish language lessons by listening carefully to how words were pronounced by the tram’s pre-programmed announcer.

Mehdi, the owner of the guesthouse, seemed determined to introduce the entire city to us with the aid of 2 guidebooks, claiming that our last 3 days were not entirely meant to be ‘relaxing’ if we were to cover everything. A big and well-travelled man, long-winded and sometimes a bit too enthusiastic, he gave TC a long run-down of the problems he went through in setting up the guesthouse when all TC did was to ask about the non-functioning wireless Internet connection. It turns out that Mehdi had been running the guesthouse for about a year, and is still doing (and expects to be doing) modifications for the next 2 years.

Our tries to rectify the wireless problem were still fruitless, even after shifting the range expander around. TC snooped about more and did bit more unspeakable things with it – to which I suspect he secretly enjoyed because it is after all the nature of what he does back home at work. We spent the rest of the time surfing the web on the 2nd floor of the spiral staircase after being ensconced on the 4th floor of the building. Calling the family by Skype thus meant that the entire guesthouse was also privy to my conversations.

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There was some time in which I took to reacquaint myself with the city and its inner working, its uneven terrain and the most bewildering mazes of streets through which trams and unsavoury people sometimes run. Almost immediately we went to catch the rather expensive whirling Dervish show at the Print Museum, an anonymous building stuck in the middle of shops, monuments, an intrusive tramway and a bus interchange.

The exquisite whirling that characterises the dervish dance is found in the Mevlevi Order, established on Rumi’s writing (they incidentally celebrate his 700th Anniversary this year) and is done to soaring music that is supposed to induce one to ecstasy and mystical flight. The Mevlevi sect was never quite known for its orthodox approach to Islam, and was occasionally criticised for being too radical. The Dervishes today perform merely for ‘heritage’ purposes, beginning with their arms clasped around themselves, gradually raising them skywards in a gesture of surrender as they whirl around the room.

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Done in 4 parts under dim lighting, half of which comprised instrumental music as the Dervishes appeared for only about 15-20 minutes, it seemed that the audience at the Press Museum spent more time asleep than awake.

I wonder why I remembered Istanbul as a very compelling city after my first visit there, despite the harassment that single females tend to receive from the heavily touristed imperial Peninsula, and the rather forlorn experience I had at the surly Berk Guesthouse.

My second visit confirmed my impressions of the city as chaotic, incomprehensible, obscure and still near un-discoverable. TC, on the other hand, hated it with a passion (the number of swear words that punctuated each sentence describing the place and the people hit a record high), having played for a while to the tourist lure of visiting monuments that he called a blatant rip-off. The monuments, TC felt, were relics of a time too long gone such that the effort to preserve the Ottoman remnants was fruitless; the modern city holds no empathy and connection to this past made even more remote by the reverence held by the people for their military and revolutionary leader Mustafa Kemal (aka Ataturk). TC got more than a little annoyed at the touts and became churlish at times, citing ‘maleness’ for his behaviour, and got particularly angry at the rip-off that he felt the tourist sites had become.

I think he got even more upset on a day when we finally decided to venture out to the ‘great unknown’ and got lost on a public bus that brought us to the coast of the Marmara Sea in the middle of nowhere – to the Asian shore in Kadikoy on a street called Bagdat about which I read about in Istanbul Time-Out Magazine so well-liked by expatriates.

“Next time, don’t go anywhere without a map!” TC said rather reproachfully to a contrite me.

We did manage to get ourselves back on track after realising that the bus routes took the one-way streets, and there was no way we could have figured that out en-route there.

The day we decided to visit the working class district of Zeytinburnu (past the district and ancient walls of Topkapi) to get to Olivium would be immortalised as the day I paid awed and hallowed tribute to reckless driving in bad conditions. Out we stumbled of the tram onto a nondescript shuttle van pointed out by a tram officer parked by the side of the road. I wonder now if we would have made it there had we not been told that a shuttle van was necessary.

The driver spoke no English, and we spoke no Turkish, and sat in a bouncy seat appearing annoyed with everything. He accepted whatever money we paid him in coins, a probable sign of exasperation at stupid tourists when the fare was clearly not the amount we dropped into his impatient hand.

Mildly put, it was disconcerting to see the bus driver wheel around recklessly, talking and waving around money while weaving through gridlocked traffic. He stopped whenever people asked him to stop on untrustworthy brakes, accelerated again on squealing wheels, counted money, collected fares and talked while he drove, never hesitating to honk many times at the slightest of traffic grievances.

The return trip was equally reckless, equally random, incomprehensible, confusing route-wise and even more bad-tempered. A stunned TC confirmed it as ‘hell of a ride’, and robbed momentarily of his eloquent self, all he could say post-ride was that it was ‘really something’.

I cannot leave Istanbul with condemnation being the order of the day – something in me refuses the superficiality of that emotion especially so that I could not bypass the first of the cultural barriers – the Turkish language. Istanbul (and Turkey) disqualifies us without second thought, as Turkish is especially extraordinary to the Turks.

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DestinationsEuropeThe BalkansTurkey

Skirting Turkey: Cross-eyed in Istanbul

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“Easy to find us! Just ask for the fancy four seasons hotel!” read my heavily pixelated map print-out.

The alarming journey began first by metro from Havaalani (Ataturk Airport) to the Zeytinburnu interchange and thereafter, an increasingly crowded tram to Sultanahmet – the first warnings of culture shock when you experience rush-hour first-hand at 11 a.m., coupled with the paranoia of falling victim to pick-pockets (this time with triple the baggage to worry about) in crammed spaces.

I congratulated myself a fair bit when both the bags and I finally stumbled (intact and a bit worse for wear) into the elusive Berk Guesthouse located in the imperial Peninsula or better known as Sultanahmet.

Sultanahmet, Istanbul’s historical centre adjacent to the Golden Horn, the Sea of Marmara and the narrow Bosphorus, is of course, most lauded by critics and the common man. Plainly manifest is this dream of the Orientalist, of that I am convinced.

What I was unprepared for, however, were the genuinely helpful and friendly Turks on the street mish-mashed with the rounds of touts, extortionists, carpet traders and jewellers (hard-sells that put my local estate agent to shame) that started to materialise along Divan Yolu operating on this general rule: if it moves and looks remotely foreign, put immediately into motion a planned course of attack that begins preferably with the phrase (that sounds remarkably like a cheesy and coarse pick-up line).

Looking someone in the eye and stopping to gullibly answer some questions leads involuntarily to a gamut of other activities such as:

i. a cup of tea in some insufferable tout’s carpet shop, serenaded not by Turkish music and questionable hospitality, but a rhetoric on the different weaves (and prices) of Kilims and Carpets. Hint: They are after all, natives of the country, and are available for your questioning. Feel free to ask about anything ranging from the exact and detailed way Turkish Coffee is brewed to whether tap water is drinkable, or where good quality tea can be found. Should that not work, feigning severe nose allergy to furs almost always does the trick.

ii. Outlandish invitations to visit Cappadocia, Anatolia or Ankara with an accompanying family member of the shop. Hint: Somehow, cousins and neighbours appear indistinguishable when it comes to business. Throw a stone and it is very likely you will hit someone who has a share in a carpet business. Pointing at another tourist that is roughly of the same ethnicity as you (and lying that he/she is just as well, a cousin of yours) and asking the tout to bother her/him might just work.

iii. Extravagant proclamations of love by the tout in the hope you’ll see them again. Hint: Learn some Turkish phrases. Sometimes, rudeness might be the only way out. Aussie academics who happened to stay in the same guesthouse as I was, taught me a useful word indeed – “ “Siktir git”, or “Fuck off”. Who ever thought we would have reached this stage?

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Annoyance aside, moments of in-erasable splendour are aplenty. Contrasts, metaphorical and physical, abound – the spick-and-span built upon the ancient, the traditional co-existing with the modern, and the broken-down polished and restored into the new. Architectural remnants of the Byzantine, Ottoman and Roman Empires litter the streets so abundantly that one is hard-pressed to rush through all of them to fill the suddenly dwindling days in Istanbul. The permanent rivalry between the Blue Mosque and the Ayasofya remains deadlocked while overwhelmed visitors gape and crow; the elaborate Topkapi Palace demands a stroll through its lavish compounds while the Bosphorus whispers of villages and sites yet unexplored.

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All are steered eventually and inevitably towards the commercialism (read: shopping) of Istanbul – the Grand Bazaar where bargaining is customary, or the chic kilometre-long European-ish Istiklal Caddesi in the Beyoglu District past Galata that hawks anything from oddly shaped guitars to Turkish Delight, and the maze of winding streets behind the spice market that brazenly display lingerie, trinkets and household goods.

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The cold December day must however, favourably end in sweat in the famous Hamami (Turkish Baths) where naked flesh meets the exfoliating mitt and giant soap balloons. Cemberlitas or the Cagaloglu are the most tourist-frequented of the baths, where quality of service depends heavily on the number of bathers. But when one is nice enough to your bather, she might just bestow you with a comb as a parting gift at the end of her service. I was left wishing all households had such bathing facilities, attendant who provides rough body pummelling included.

And I slept well – and a new day began with the involuntary wake-up call from the Muezzin’s call to prayer at around 5:50 a.m. The sun, faithful only on that one day, climbed over the Bosphorus and melted the midnight landscape into orange, and threw into relief impossibly fat gulls that were never far from the heavily trafficked waterways.

The guesthouse I stayed in promised an accessible Istanbul. But was Istanbul easy to find? I left Turkey after my 5 days there with a firm negative.

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