Skirting Turkey: Cross-eyed in Istanbul

“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?

Ayasofya copy

Blue Mosque copy

Blue Mosque Interior 2 copy

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.

Topkapi Inner Court copy

Spice Bazzar copy

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.

Sunrise on the Golden Horn copy

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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