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.

The All-Consuming Tourist Gaze

Stunning, small, and ancient enough for tourists to keep their fingers from clicking away non-stop. At least, that was the perspective of Tallinn that preoccupied my mind as I began the short, southern catamaran journey across the Gulf of Finland. And to a large extent, it was true – quite literally, it was the new existing in the old. Exquisitely perched at Estonia’s northern coast, minus the gunk and grime of medieval life, Vanalinn (Tallinn’s old town) retains enough grit to tantalise with its ultramodern, meticulously furnished cafés and restaurants that occupied the ground floors of restored medieval merchant houses.

Aerial View Tallinn

Upon arrival however, I had not realised several things: the degree to which the old town has suffered from the sandwich phenomenon – an overwhelming number of visitors pack this small area of a place around the clock (literally so, considering the summer sky does not fully darken), hailing mainly from Rostock, Stockholm and Helsinki, and the degree to which the residents of Tallinn enjoy a relatively richer status than the rest of the Estonians, as evidenced in the prices of lifestyle goods, and the gleaming convertibles they drive.

Hostels, hotels and guesthouses abound, a testament to the exponential growth of the tourist industry in the last couple of years.

Tallinn Skyline

In the heart of Vanalinn, the doors of the tourist information centre are worn from constant opening and closing, while each tiny nook and cranny offers bewildering permutations and combinations of camera angles.

A few major streets separate the Old Town from Tallinn downtown, and therein is the modern attraction of the Viru Keksus and the Kaubamanja, open from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., enthusiastically providing evidence of how deep mall culture has permeated Estonian lifestyle.

Yet an additional couple of days’ stay in Estonia’s capital offered the luxury of new perspectives beyond the travel handbook’s rave about the city’s poise, the widely hawked Juniper kitchen utensils, or the overly trodden cobblestones of the Old Town.

Conveniently had I wandered beyond the familiar circle of the Old Town into the sector that housed the magnificent but military looking National Estonian Library, noticing that the flags flew at half-mast that day. But I was also lost, despite being in the possession of a map, and resolutely walked into the library’s information counter, helped by a benevolent middle-aged woman who immediately pointed me to the street we were on.

Estonian Library 1

“Endla,” she resolutely circled the street’s name in red, “you are here.”

“Right…thank you…and…er…could you perhaps tell me why the flags are flying at half-mast?” I queried tentatively.

“Oh,” she seemed to think for a moment, “It’s a day of mourning.”

“Mourning?” I parroted, in hopefully what was an encouraging tone into getting her to tell more.

“Because…64 years ago,” she solemnly but somewhat vaguely informed me, “many Estonians were sent to Siberia by the Russians.”

“They were sent to Siberia?” I tried to politely clarify, well aware of the backlash this could produce.

“Yes, yes,” she reaffirmed impatiently, a slight waver of distress tingeing her voice.

It was clear that the conversation was over. I took the near-forgotten map that I had thrust at her at the beginning, and strolled out once more into the sunshine.

But this incident was sufficiently catalytic in exhibiting the way in which history and politics simmer unrepentantly beneath its quaint cobblestones, proving to me what I would have missed had I not dug a little deeper. My memory of a previous visit to Linnan Museum that chronicles the Tallinn’s hanseatic history and Estonia’s uneasy relationship with Russia had finally ceased to be a detached and informative history and intellectual tour.

The story as told by other Estonians to me (though the younger ones sheepishly admitted that Grieving Day was nothing more than a public holiday for them) later depicted the picture more clearly: Illegal Soviet occupation of Estonia took place in 1940, initiating a string of political and economic reforms that were not taken well. 14 June commemorates the day in 1941 where Soviet forces organised the first major mass deportation of Estonians in cattle cars to Siberia.

Having been dominated by foreign powers through much of its history, it is no surprise to find a developed sense of anti-conquest among the people. Estonians wear their history proudly, an unmistakable trait if one bothers to look beneath the architectural wonder of the Old Town, particularly because their sense of history is characterised by survival memories from invading Russian forces through the centuries.

I leave Tallinn with a reformed outlook – Estonia welcomes its visitors with open arms, the right arm offering tantalising fodder for the all-consuming tourist gaze, while the left holds out its own national consciousness, a darker, alluring provocation for the gem-digging traveller.

Alcohol, Lakes and Myths

I did not understand a word, but loosened my death grip on the ubiquitous Lonely Planet Scandinavian Europe guide. When the group of middle-aged Finnish women grew increasingly boisterous as we neared Savonlinna (Finland’s major town of the Southeastern Lake District) on a dawdling and rickety regional train that connected us from Parikkala to Savonlinna Kauppatori, I reckoned it must and would be a place where room for regret is not permitted.

The womens’ impromptu singing suddenly took a turn for the folksy (at least I think it was!), and then Olavinlinna Castle moved into view. Choric exclamations followed, and one woman in particular sang something that did appear to be a folk tune of Olavinlinna, about its history and its legends. Stuck in a country with an alien, tongue-rolling language stemming from Finno-Ugric roots, so far away from home, and having spent 5 hours in a train getting stared at by several Nordic blondes, it took little to believe that magic, lore and myth swirled comfortably within Olavinlinna’s rotund towers.

“English?” Asked the woman at the ticketing counter briskly.


“Your tour starts at 12 p.m. Be there,” she pointed to vaguely to a small space where a few visitors milled about with an uncertainty on their faces that must have mirrored mine.

There was…a tour?

I was late for the one-hour tour, after deciding to poke around the walls a bit on my own in true traveller fashion for about the 10 next minutes, rushing in the end to join a group of people who appeared to be speaking English, only to hear the tail end of a legend narrated by a guide. Damn, I thought, as I attempted to glide into the group as naturally as I could only to find them disbanding as soon as I had joined. I promptly realised that I had joined the wrong tour and had in fact been listening to the ending commentary of a tour that had just finished. And so the struggle began again, to find the correct tour group within the castle’s winding walls.

I did of course, eventually, get to hear this story: A daughter of the then-Swedish (when Finland belonged to Sweden and was at loggerheads with Russia) landlord fell in love with a Russian officer and at the height of their forbidden trysts, she decided to open the main gate of the castle one night, only to find the entire Russian troops gleefully awaiting. The angry Swedish Lord, who was still unaware his daughter had opened the gates, ordered the culprit to be bricked into the castle wall alive. And so she was (in whatever manner best left to fertile imaginations) – with no concessions made.

It does seem indeed that the ill-fated Romeo-Juliet theme exists in all countries, in some form or another.

“It’s probably true,” an Australian tourist cut in my idle musings, commenting emphatically in a loud voice to his indifferent travelling companion. “Easy to believe.”

Not two steps away, another Australian tourist busied himself by taking snaps of every possible angle of the castle with his girlfriend posing as provocatively as possible in every shot, dressed in a dress that was suspiciously tailored to look as if she wore only the Finnish flag.

Olavinlinna is one of the reasons why people come to the Savonlinna region, and its medieval walls that date from 1475 do not disappoint. Depending on various wars and the corresponding treaties signed through the years, the political tussles had created the volatile, shifting international borders, which meant that Olavinlinna had indeed bounced between Russian and Swedish hands.

I wonder if each change brought in a fresh supply of women, soldiers, beer and a lot of wenching. The guide had after all mentioned that along with roasted game animals, each man got 5 litres of beer daily during weekdays, and seven litres during the weekends on top of strong spirits.

The alcoholic tradition of the Finns, Russians and Swedes, as I established mentally from then onwards, ran deep.

Today, Olavinlinna’s main courtyard houses the Savonlinna Opera Festival under a giant awning, and while I was there, preparations for the July Festival were well underway. I peeked into the stage area where the logistics crew were setting up the necessary structures and received a few scowls in return. The guide sheepishly admitted that the logistics crew did not like tourists milling around the stage area, immediately explaining that rehearsals were due to start in a couple of days. The acoustics, so they say, are excellent.

It is only during July that Savonlinna does adorn herself carefully with banners and flyers, and with her roads swelling with the fat of incoming festival-bound cars does she awaken from her yearlong hibernation. But her natural beauty is nonetheless obvious minus the unnecessary adornment and the bustle of the July crowd.

Bridge to Hostel copy

Savonlinna - Vierasvenesatama copy

Bridges and clumps of little islands dot what would otherwise be a continent of water, and most obviously, therein lies the main attraction. Becoming a total recluse is entirely possible in these regions where summer holiday cottages that face the lakes are out for rent.

Sulosaari copy

Wow-moments and gawking-at-nature periods are not uncommon for a person like me who’s from a country where fresh water is scarce. It seems as if the way of life in summer is to relax amidst the buzz of mosquitoes, in the strong summer sun, on any of the abundant rock outcroppings of the tiny saaris (“Islands” in Finnish) with a picnic mat and basket. Shirtless, if you prefer, to get a more even tan. But if you are a Finn (or Russian or Swede), it seems wiser to bring a bottle of alcohol along for good measure.

Most commonly, tourists take a cruise that wildly vary from 1-hour tours around Savonlinna to a few days stay, on board to the nearby town of Punkaharju. But before that, they customarily gather around the Kauppatori (the market square) where a bazaar takes place daily, with the usual hawking of breakfast pastries, tacky souvenirs and tourist t-shirts.

I bought my father one that read ‘Wrong Medicine’, and another for my sister that read ‘Brainwashed’. Don’t you just love the Finnish sensibility?

But some things don’t change, which might be either an annoyance or a comfort when you are far from home. Fast food restaurants have planted themselves unashamedly at the lakefront, but instead of McDonalds, there is instead Hesburger – the Finnish equivalent of it at least – with a menu that is naturally, English-unfriendly such that ordering food is reduced to wordless gestures and exhaustive smiles and nods of understanding when the man at the counter finally serves the correct order.

Yet in a place where wilderness abounds and nature is the big brother, the shops, restaurants, railway/bus stations, trigger-happy tourists and supermarkets do seem to mar the tranquil beauty. On the downside, other than having fish as the main diet, near-paralytic drunk males (and broken liquor bottles that freely litter the streets) are not that uncommon.

It was hard to say goodbye to a landscape that I could so easily get used to – before long, the 3 days in Savonlinna were up, and I found myself lugging the cumbersome backpack to a bus stop with no idea if a bus would indeed come. But it eventually did, and the winding route it took through the lakes, islands and resort could not have given a fonder farewell to Lakeland.

The Perils of Getting on a Plane

This was right after lunch. The airport was in the opposite direction, about an hour away. His watch announced that it 2pm. Mine grumpily said 2:20pm. My flight was at 4pm.

“There will be time,” so Sean, my chauffeur for that day (and friend too, of course) nevertheless insisted. “Tullamarine is not far now. 14 minutes away.”

Princes Highway, Bolte Bridge, the Yarra, and Melbourne City whizzing past. We sped down the highway at 110km/h; I peeked at the speedometer and checked surreptitiously for the speed limits plastered at near every lamp post. (It certainly would embarrass me greatly should he receive a speeding ticket, even if I did miss my flight back home.) Melbourne’s freeways are certainly confusing, especially the horrifying part where he explained we needed to take a highway, get off it when we hit the city, and then get onto a totally different highway once more that will finally bring us to the airport, located in the north of Melbourne. The optimist in me agreed with him when he cheerily pointed out that the highways at least had names and are not incognito and dehumanised with mere alphabets and numbers.

God forbid should there be a transport system that demanded “Now, you get onto the YUCK235, exit at 330Mwuak, and re-enter the GROAN110A before exiting again at GEEZ3209 Southwest”.

Thank goodness. We managed to reach the cooperative counter before it folded its arms and refused to eat any more passengers’ luggage and granted boarding passes.

It was peak period, definitely, the middle of June, where most Asian students returned home after their exams. The flight was full, as I was discovering. It was fun, however, standing in queue picking out characters with bad hair (yellow, red and black – either an imitation of McDonalds or the German Flag), bad fashion sense and the wrong type of dressing that only reveals itself when the humid Singapore climate blows one in the face.

Hey, my fashion sense (if it even exists) is not stellar, so we are truly in good company.


“You can go in at 3.30,” Sean said. This time I was no longer very anxious. The boarding pass was reassuringly tucked in the passport, the luggage had been rightfully swallowed up and my hands were finally free, save for a huge pillow I decided to bring on board.

“Everyone will be envious when you carry that pillow in.” Sean told me again.

The automatic doors that opened and closed into the restricted passenger area were silver and unfriendly. When I finally did get in, boarding time was nearly over.

With greatest chagrin I found myself sitting next to a man who wore a mismatched suit, who breathed dragon breath out his mouth with every exhale, who drank only red wine throughout, who snored loudly, who never got up once during the 7 hours, who fumbled with the headset a couple of times, before deciding to only put on the right side.

Moving out from the window seat to the toilet took skill, patience, and a lot of apologies when it once resulted in spilt coffee on the carpet. The toilet light, as I trivially noted, had an uncanny ability to highlight all the white in my hair, in places so obvious that I had missed all these years. The temptation to search through whole head was great, but that meant an extended amount of time in cramped space, hindering others who would have used their plastic food knives to slit my throat for hogging a precious lavatory. Still, it gladdened my heart and relieved my hormones that know I found and successfully plucked out 4 silver ones.

The back of the plane had become a meeting place for passengers who ironically huddled together while attempting to stretch their legs and bodies. Poses from yoga, basketball, pilates and post-natal stretching came colourfully on display. There was a woman who stayed there as long as I could remember, chatting up every bewildered passer-by who got accosted by her whenever they needed to use the bathroom.

She beat me to it.

The plane rattled, shook and groaned under the weight of everyone, rocked a bit in the turbulences throughout and the seatbelt sign came on but naught.

The smile and the cool of the famed woman dressed in a Kebaya never faltered once.

Oh, we did have an extravagantly printed menu on quality paper when it came to mealtimes. But it can be summed up, as in most airlines, “Would you like chicken, or fish please?”. For refreshment, it was sandwich with either tuna or greens with meat.

Essentially, it was chicken or fish again.

I do not know whether to be overjoyed or saddened that the vacation is over. The bright and mildly satisfying point, nonetheless, was seeing the sour looks on people who had loved Melbourne weather; everyone took large gulps of the heated, frizzled night air, wishing they had also changed into shorts and T-shirts.

Me too.

The Good, The Bad, The Cold and The Italians

“We are told that Franz Josef Glacier has many more things than Fox, ya see. There’s more to do there.” A Brit on holiday chirpily let on en route to the Glaciers, his girlfriend nodding her assent in response. They were caught on in the excitement of it all, prepping their camper van for the long journey north into Franz Josef from Queenstown and hence missing that incredulous look I was sure my face carried.


How was I to know? For a brief moment it felt as if I were doomed to suffer the sweeping boredom that would descend over me in Fox Glacier, with the mantra of ‘there is nothing to do’ reverberating through just about everyone’s minds –both me and the other poor unsuspecting inhabitants and tourists. But I have been conditioned from birth to live in a small and busy city that believes wholeheartedly in being in a state of frequent and constant movement and activity; it had always taken (and will always take, I suspect) an adjustment to slow the pace of life down, especially on vacations.

First impressions count, so they say. My narrow pre-impression of Fox Glacier already discoloured by that singular comment, worsened when the coach pulled into Glacier country, where dense rainforests were covered by equally dense cloud covers, and the Glaciers were nowhere in sight. Ah, yes, it was the beginning of June, winter.

“Um…where are the snow mountains and the glaciers?” I inquired politely of the amiable coach driver, who immediately pointed towards that same dense cover of cloud I was looking at with distaste, before taking off in his great vehicle in whistles.

Disbelief and well, more incredulity. The brochure had after all said something akin to the effect of “Admire the snow-topped mountains rising out of the rainforest”.

Well, yes, I did choose to believe it.

Hurrying back as Sunlight fades

My first thought? Ach, that brochure lied – but true enough, the photographs displayed were most likely taken during a cheerful summer day, where people wore shorts up the ice. Between muttering under my breath and looking up in despair at the grey, drizzly sky, I nevertheless booked my half-day Glacier walk in the afternoon of the next day with Alpine Guides. The specific instructions were: to have lunch, bring energy food (chocolate!) and wear warmer clothing; boots, raincoat, crampons provided.

I was vanquished the moment the forbidden word ‘chocolate’ came up. It after all, provided an excuse for me to feast on those things called ‘the food of the gods’.

The rest of the day and the early hours of the morning were spent walking up and down the stairs of my motel, looking at the resident fat cat, and ogling the manager on duty as a desperate measure. The constant flow of rain had changed my mind about walking a mere 6 km down the path to Lake Matheson, where the view of Mt Cook is supposed to be incomparable. Despite the rain, the unnatural quiet made me entertain the idea that it was a quiet that one could accustom oneself to, a slow, pulsing rhythm of living that the busy city heart aches to smile along with.

It turned out to be pleasantly international – the people who signed up for the tour, that is as I found out in the afternoon – Swiss, Americans, Canadians and Italians with a geologist on board. Dutifully, we entered the changing area, tried on heavy boots that fit passably, grabbing large trench coat-sized rain jackets that were either blue, yellow or red. Our guides, Karri and Marius, chic, trendy and fit in red and black, waited as we struggled into our outfits, lumbering awkwardly behind them as we made our way to the Glacier and yet not trying to show it.

Of course, we failed miserably.

“Fox Glacier is unusual…” Karri began with the basic facts. And so it was, as I was beginning to discover. This glacier runs down to nearly 200 metres above sea level, existing with adjacent rain forest, formed, according to Maori Legend, by the running and eternal tears of a girl whose lover fell to his death.

The climb first took us through the drainage area, and then steeply into the rainforest, and slight waterfalls, where well-worn steps were visible, hammered into places by steel bands. Cupping our trembling hands and drinking what we could of the water was nevertheless a thrill. As far as I was concerned, there were no outright groans and complaints, for no one wanted to admit that they were unfit for it.

The Swiss couple was mostly silent throughout, the Canadians spoke quietly among themselves, the others muttered under their breaths in their own near-undistinguishable lingo, the geologist was understandably loud, mostly in argument with the guides about Glacier formation and the Italians…well…the Italians…

The most boisterous of the lot were the Italians, full-blooded, daring and dashing in their attempts to climb sharp precipices when our guides were not looking, just to take a photo of themselves against a backdrop that would have been just as stunning had they stayed in the ‘safer’ area.

“Oh my god! What are you doing?!” One heard this throughout and it was a matter of time before I got used to the constant reactions to their antics from the guides.

Stepping onto the ice proper, the resident geologist squatted down in front of the group, held up a piece of terminal moraine.

“Can anyone tell me what this is?” He questioned in the same manner as a talk-show host challenges his contestants for the grand prize of $1000, expecting an answer worthy of an academic intellectual.

Frequent mutterings in Italian meant that the Italians had quite enough.

“Aaaa Rrrrooock.” One of them drawled. I laughed, and half-hoped that the geologist had the grace to look embarrassed.

It was probably best not to argue any longer with a belligerent Italian who was very determined to stand up for the common man who knew close to nuts about Glaciers and its geological history.

Soon after, I found the guides separated from their climbing axes. The incriminating evidence was such that the axes were near the Italians, who had miraculously carved a horizontal tunnel in a little ice cave, so they could shove each other in it to take unusual shots of each other.

“You guys had better come with me, because you are mostly likely the first to fall off the cliff.” Karri announced when it was time to move off the glacier before the sun went down.

Non capisco…it did take them awhile, before it dawned on them.

“Ahh…Eh…Thhank you verrry much!” They sputtered in great indignation.

The downward trail was harder than we thought, even though we did not need to go through the rainforest trail anymore. The path downwards was made through slippery rock, mud and rivulets of melting ice, passing landscape that was gradually becoming a uniform brownish-grey, save for our colourful jackets, until we were finally ensconced in the bus once again.

It was a time of celebration too. Someone lit a cigarette as a trophy of completion, the Italians turned hyper and bounced about, and there was a louder amount of chatting and perhaps an unspoken camaraderie.

Fox glacier, winked a bluish- white, and disappeared out of sight, into the rapidly descending cold, and our last looks were also our goodbyes to that formidable wonder.