30. Istanbul // Turkey

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Istanbul sucked. There – I said it. So you can throw your stones and crucify me. But we thought it sucked. Perhaps we arrived with expectations the size of the glacier that sunk the Titanic or maybe we thought it would open us to a new exotic culture when instead we got a soulless city ambushed by tourists. Whatever it was, it sucked.

I am of course being a little harsh. At times, it blew us away and the deep history would keep you glued if in book-form for days. However, it seemed lost and sold-out. We thought the food would be incredible but often it was in contrast to what we’d had before. Despite the streets selling spices by the truckload, the food was oily, stale and lacklustre. Everything seemed to be geared towards the millions of tourists who plum-filled the streets. Every Turk you encountered was able to rattle off “Hello, where are you from?” in English, Spanish, German, Russian, French etc until you eventually responded to something. And then, once you’d snapped at their bait, they’d follow it with “Come into my store.” The place was rank with tourism. This has been nothing new. But usually, you can be smart and walk a kilometre or two to a neighbouring suburb to escape it, to eat far cheaper and greater food and to immerse yourself into local culture. However, as Istanbul is home to 14 million people (unofficially 22 million,) you almost needed to travel for a whole hour to get out of the hub. Those we have spoken to since have told us they had done this and raved of the things they found. And this was clearly our mistake. (Thankfully, Turkey has delivered in every city/place we have visited since.) I think as we flew in we dreamed of feelings reminiscent to those arriving in Saigon. A landscape bursting with buildings and activity, a hub where you could strike up conversations with those sitting beside you and a place you wished not to leave. But, and this is just our experience, it lacked the authenticity we craved and numbed us with its tedious interrogation to buy useless crap and tours we had no desire to buy.

Now that that rant is over, I can tell you what we did enjoy in Istanbul and what we did get out of it. Just keep the above paragraph in the back of your mind as to what was usually happening every other second of the day.

Istanbul (which sounds like a social networking application for basketball players to post pictures) is huge, predominately Muslim and incredibly historic. It’s been known by three different names in its history, Byzantium, Constantinople and Istanbul. It is where the continents of Europe and Asia meet, divided only by the Bosphorus. It’s location has been strategic for the majority of wars that have been fought in its vicinity, providing the only water access between the Sea of Marmara and the Black Sea.

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As we flew in on Peragus Airlines, we were mesmerised by the sheer expanse of the city, the congested buildings stretching as far as the eye could see on both the left and right of the plane. Mosques pockmarked the neighbourhoods, their domed rooves protruding from the flat skyline like bubblewrap. I think one of our favourite parts about Turkey was the journey from the airport to the city itself. The airport is about 60kms from the city and, usually, you’d just jump on a direct bus or a train to take you there. In Istanbul however, we had to first catch a bus, then catch a ferry, then catch a tram. The ferry was really cool and was a great way to be welcomed into the city, the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia standing proudly as we cruised into the harbour. After docking in Eminonu, we bailed on the tram and decided to walk with our packs the last 2 kilometres, to get an initial feel of the place and to save a penny.

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We stayed the six nights at a place on the south side of Sultanahmet, which meant a little bit of walking everytime we wanted to go anywhere. We’d been recommended this side as it was near the Grand Bazaar, the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sofia and a few other things. In hindsight, however, I think we personally would have preferred the Beyoglu side where it seemed more was happening on a cultural level, and left this side as a single-day activity. Anyway, hindsight is useless unless you believe in reincarnation, are then able to reincarnate yourself into yourself and are also able to time travel back in time a month to do it all over again. Not possible. Perhaps if you had two days in Istanbul, Sultanahmet is better. But for a week as we had, we think Beyoglu would have been more appropriate.

Even though we knew beer would be near impossible to find in Turkey especially during Ramazan, we were still eager to down a sneaky Efes after our day of travelling. After all, I was outraged by the authorities in Albania earlier that day having confiscated my bullet shaped keyring Ken & Karen had bought me as a gift when they were in Turkey. Go figure yeah? I was simply returning into a country the bloody keyring had come from and these over-officiating squirts thought it was too dangerous to take it back in. It’s a keyring you clowns. Good luck with your floundering economy.

Our insatiable desire to quench our thirt meant we ended up in an absolute scrub of a restaurant that again existed for tourists who were happy to pay twice the price for a meal no Turk would find acceptable. But tired and thirsty, we could not be arsed to research somewhere better to eat. This was probably our first sign that Istanbul wasn’t going to be as incredible as Saigon had been, where you could stumble into any establishment without the risk of being screwed with the bill and always guaranteed a pho bo.

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Upon walking home, we kept our eyes open for a bar playing the Brazil v Germany qualifier. We skipped one place near home eager to get us in and instead went to a flashier bar with a big screen. But after one round of beers, we realised this too seemed to exist to capitalise on Western wallets after charging us 32 Lira for two beers. We abandoned and went back to the other place, Stone House, who were happy to see us return. Apparently, we weren’t the first to do this and we met a family of Welsh who had been charged $20 for a wine at the previous bar. Stone House became bit of a regular for us and was one of the few places to live up to our expectation of finding easy chats in this mammoth city. When we weren’t amazed as the scoreline ticked all its way over to 7-1 to Germany, we were either chatting to the Turkish staff or to the Welsh family. They had backpacked Australia 25 years ago, when things were very different they said, and had to finance themselves by travelling in a convoy with an artist who had basically made photocopies of oil paintings and they had to go doorknocking in places like Mount Isa and Alice Springs to sell them as “genuine paintings.”

Our hotel, as I think all of them do in Turkey, provided breakfast in the morning. The staple Turkish breakfast is tomato, cucumber, olives, feta cheese, sometimes watermelon and about 14 loaves of bread. Once we were stuffed to the brim, we made our way to an Irish bar called the Port Shield who had advertised the previous day they were playing the State of Origin – game three. Prior to the game, the Euro Sports channel was working fine and I grabbed myself a couple of pints of Guinness. However, just as we were nearing kick-off, the channel froze. They switched to an alternate channel which improved things very little and, apart from one or two sets around the 10 minute mark, they just couldn’t get the coverage. Resigned, we instead struck up a conversation with a couple from Newcastle (although he had previously lived in Toowoomba) as a contingent of Australians emptied the bar. Once we had shared stories, they went on their way and we decided to finalise our bill and head to the Grand Bazaar. What the hell? Two Guinness had been 28 smackeroos! Oh great, Istanbul had again proven itself to rip westerners. It would have hurt less had we at least been able to watch the game (of which Queensland was able to regain some pride) but as that had been a non-event, needless to say they received a scathing review from me on Trip Advisor.

After the previous night’s farcical meal, Elisha had done a little research and we stopped by a small doner stand where a doner was only 5 Lira ($2.50) and oh, what’s that amazing flavour on here? Spice you call this? Istanbul redeemed itself slightly and the the line took a small upward turn on our “Is Istanbul as good as Saigon” graph.

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We made a quick walk through the Grand Bazaar. Historically, this place is incredible. It has been the central market for Turks since the mid 1700’s and is just whopping huge – with currently between 2000-3000 stores. Oh, if you were like me before getting there and don’t know, it’s basically a big market. Grand Bazaar literally translates to “Big Market.” (Probably not true.) If I could have seen this place 100 years ago (again, that would probably require some more of that reincarnating or time travelling skill I don’t seem to possess) THAT would have been amazing. Back then, only cheap clothes would hang in front of small stalls to attract attention. A potential client would sit and have cay or Turkish coffee in a relaxed atmosphere with the owner and a sale would be discussed. That is where the culture emerged of the Turks ALWAYS drinking cay. The Turkish coffee is another story. I don’t think I see anyone drinking it. For a civilisation that has incorporated coffee since the 16th century, they sure do make a blotched effort of it now. Their interpretation of it is to serve a shot sized cup with the bottom half of it holding sticky, compact black filter coffee and filling the top half with hot water. After the first mouthful, you’re then left with literal sludge. So I understand how amazing the Grand Bazaar must have been in its former glory. However, now it is an endless passage of tourists (up to 250,000 per day!) and salesman constantly badgering you with an unrelenting pitch to enter their store. I’m sure there was some truely amazing stores and family businesses in there still manufacturing jewellery and items by hand but good luck trying to find it amid the cheap and tacky tourist paraphernalia.

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Upon seeing it for what it is now, we hurried out of there and found a small bar not too far away to try our first Turkish coffee and the much acclaimed apple tea. A friendly little chap called Mehmut served us our drinks and told us they also did beer. I quickly learnt the Turkish coffee was dreadful and Elisha found the apple tea to be overly sweet and in essence just hot cordial. (On a side note – if they can make apple tea, where the hell is all the cider?) So we weren’t a fan of either but after trying something cultural, we switched back to the beers. Which strangely led to one of the most culturally-rich afternoons we were to have. Mehmut took a liking to us (probably as we kept the bill ticking over) and, over the course of the afternoon, filled an A4 sheet of paper with helpful Turkish phrases which would prove invaluable for the rest of our stay. Following this, he brought us some Raki to try for free (an aniseed flavoured spirit served with ice) and then got me up to learn some Turkish dancing with him. This was all great and as I got further into my beers, I’d yell out at passing Turks “Tea, coffee? Yes? Please” in Turkish as they passed and, other times “I love you” which returned some interesting looks but mostly smiles.

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I was always in the back of my mind a little cautious of his friendliness however, especially when he winked at me as I went to the toilet and he rushed out for some alone time with Elisha and then, later, when he tried to add us to Facebook. He also took 10% off our bill and wanted to show us around Istanbul himself, showing us the mosques, his own house and a few other places. We made plans to come back the next night at 7 to do this. He also invited us to leave the bill for the next night if we wished but we insisted to pay right there and then. He was massively friendly and we got heaps out of the interaction. However, I just couldn’t be sure where the line was between friendliness and hold us at knife point down a side alley. We eventually left with plans to return the next night and went to find some dinner.

We thought we had found a cool food street similar to Jalan Alor in Malaysia and sat down. We quickly learnt this street specialised in seafood and so we grabbed some meze and a shrimp based casserole. The meze was impressive in flavour but we still thought the food overpriced and thought Istanbul had to be hiding something better than this. The other problem was it was Ramazan, where the Muslims eat nothing between sunrise and sunset. And the fact they don’t eat pork anytime. I know – insane. Pig provides my five favourite food groups – honey-glazed ham, crispy bacon, fatty pork knuckle, roast pork and juicy slow-cooked pork belly. They miss out on it all! And that’s even when Ramazan isn’t on. Anyway, it meant most of the time there were very few people out eating until the sun set and then the parks would flood with families with their portable barbeques and turkish pides and hot cay and steaming soups and home cooked meals. Actually, I really admired this part of their culture. For one month each year, the family basically spends each night supping together for hours on end. We would come back to our hotel at 2 in the morning and find the family still sitting outside sharing cay. It’s very different to most western homes that chug down microwave dinners in a non-social atmosphere in front of the tv.

(I’m only getting back to this blog now because bloody Kent and Emma wanted to have a bloody chat with us in the treehouse in Olympos. And then we had to go on another cruise and its only now, almost a week later, that we are back in a treehouse in Olympos where I can write in tranquility. Oh hang on, now the owner wants to come over for a chat and she’s brought us a beer. Oh, and some guy from Kentucky called Dan has now also joined us. Hang on. Hang on.)

Day three saw us venture into the very heart of Istanbul where Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque summon tourists like Khal Drogo might his Dothraki tribe. Despite the sweltering heat, we joined the seemingly endless line and entered in. What intrigued me most about Hagia Sofia is that it has been used by both Christians AND Muslims during its enduring 1600 year existence, essentially epitomising Istanbul’s contrasting history. Between 537 and 1453, it served as an Eastern Orthodox cathedral, except between 1204 and 1261 when it was converted to a Roman Catholic cathedral. As we know, Constantinople was conquered by the Ottoman Turks in 1453 and, it was at this time that the building became a mosque. It remained in this use until 1935 when it was opened to the public as a museum. When Asians weren’t rudely pushing in front of us or big fat dirty white Russians weren’t ruining our photos with slutty poses, we were able to stroll through this expansive complex, looking up in wonder at all the celestial paintings and markings on the ceilings (but mostly being pissed off by the tourists.)

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We thought we would follow the Hagia Sofia with a visit to the Blue Mosque, a mosque renowned for it’s (and I’ll let you have one guess . . . that’s right) blue interior. But the hords of people lining up out the front, the tour guides vying for our business and the overwhelming heat posed us with this one question. “Should we grab a beer instead?” We traded an unwanted experience for a cold beer and instead thumbed through some images of the mosque’s interior on the free wifi we found at the bar. Whilst on the wifi, Elisha found Mehmut had tried to contact her via Facebook and so we took that opportunity to say “Thanks for the offer but we’re just not entirely sure that you’re not going to lead us down a side alley and hold us at knife point so no thanks.” I’m still not sure if he was just incredibly friendly and wanted to show us around but you’ve got to keep your discretion. We will never know.

Instead of getting stabbed for our wallets, we found a market that seemed to be open for the Ramazan festival. This place was alive with Turkish families and merchants. We tried a drink I guess you could call it that was yellow in colour and thick like custard, and tasted like a lemon meringue pie. And Elisha ate a horse-shoe shaped pastry-like donut that was drowned in honey.

We ventured across to the Beyoglu side the next day to see what we were missing. After immediately crossing the bridge, you could feel tourism leave you. The street changed to stores selling musical instruments, the people began appearing with tattoos and long hair and food seemed to drop in price as quickly as the stock market did during the GFC. Further along was a long strip of bars and cafes, with sidestreets running off these with even more bars. We spent the afternoon seeking out kebabs, found a graffiti-laden coffee house and exploring the streets.

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Our best find that day was back near our apartment when we were looking for somewhere to eat dinner. Up until now, Istanbul had failed us miserably with its food, with one or two exceptions. It was initially the Malaysians we saw going into Ziya Baba that caught our eye. This tiny little unpretentious family restaurant had a simple menu but showcased food that was packed with flavour. Their menemen (sort of like scrambled eggs with green peppers, chilli and tomatoes) was so good we decided to bail on our free breakfast every morning and come and eat here instead, an easy choice considering it was only $3. Their chicken doner outshone any others we had tried and their kebab plate was so fresh and flavourful. They just did the little things right. The red onion was sprinkled with sumac, the lettuce was crisp and they included herbs. Oh herbs! Satisfied with finally finding a worthwhile place to eat, we agreed we didn’t need to try anywhere else for food.

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Afterwards, we again stopped by Stone House for a quick night cap and found ourselves chatting to a Mexican girl, who currently lived in Melbourne, and a couple of guys from Bangkok, until about 1.30 in the morning. Slowly, Istanbul was beginning to meet our insanely high expectations and we were enjoying the opportunity to find easy conversations wherever we went (which is probably the silver lining in a tourist mecca.)

We returned to Ziya Baba the next morning for some more of their insanely tasty menemen, as well as a bowl of their lentil soup (my new love!) Their breakfast menu was just that I think – really simple but just done oh so well. We took a quick walk back into the city and entertained the idea of checking out the basilica but the crowds again deterred us from that – sorry, we’re just not into that stuff enough to tolerate crowds. We thought we might head back across to the Beyoglu side where Elisha had found a few places she wanted to check out. But first, a quick stop at the boats in the harbour selling their fish sandwiches (probably another top tourist thing to do in the world.) These were ok for about $3 but I seemed to see a lot of white people around me and only about 3 Turks. Those Turks were also carrying garbage bags and cleaning tables. The place did also sell lemonade for one lira which we grabbed about 7 of in the heat. Slurp.

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Once across the other side, Elisha guided us to a rooftop bar where we were able to watch the sun set over the two main mosques and enjoy a beer. It was as we were almost to the next bar afterwards that I realised I had left my $7 sunnies behind. We thought we’d come back afterwards to claim them, since I’d only had them for a couple of weeks. We next stopped by a small bar that spilled out onto the street as it filled up. This was really cool because it showed a Brunswick kind of vibe amongst the university aged Turkish people. After initially thinking all of Turkey would be conservative and burqa wearing, we found our ignorance being challenged by a clear group of people who were far more liberal. Two beers down and we went back to claim my sunnies, past the bouncer, up the shonky elevator and up the stairs. “Sorry, we have not seen those. No sunnies. No sunnies.” I hope they enjoy them, and do learn one day that they aren’t a genuine $300 pair and they snap in the middle and the broken plastic splinters their eye socket and they go blind for life.

An upper Turkish restaurant was on the cards for dinner and we found ourselves enjoying a wonderful share-plate of kebab meat, salad and turkish bread. My one irk with these places is they always try and leave a bottle of water on your table which they obviously charge you for later. As good as the meal was, I just can’t stand the constant money-grabbing and wankerdom (a term coined by myself to mean making things wanky so that you pay more money for them even though, in essence, it is still kebab meat, salad and turkish bread – that’s right, the exact same thing you had at lunch but you only paid one third of the price for it.) Minus one pair of sunnies and short an extra few lira for unwanted water, we made our way back across the bridge and made the 4 kilometre walk back home around 2 in the morning. Surprisingly, this was probably the busiest we had actually seen the Beyoglu side of Istanbul.

I have no idea what we did on day six. So instead, I’ll insert this story: One of the nights previous (and I’m not sure which one) we tried to take out around $500 AUD from an ATM that stood amid 4 or 5 others. Before finalising, it advised a 3% fee would be charged which, on $500, worked out to be about $15. We hit cancel on that and moved onto the next one. Several days later, we were alarmed to find the full amount still appeared on our statement, despite the money never being dispensed from the machine. We’ve since lodged this with NAB and now have to wait 45 days for them to correspond with the Turkish bank and query it. Seperate to this, I also had to skype 28 Degrees after realising one of the cards was no longer working. They informed me they’d sent me a letter a month ago and some suspicious transactions had been attempted in America. So despite sounding like we had still managed to remain drunk the entire time, I just wanted to include this to show we had at some point been of clear mind to sort some stuff out (albeit my skype to 28 degrees was quite slurry.) What I do remember from our last night was watching the World Cup grand final between Germany and Argentina. We again chose Stone House as our drinking quarters and watched the game while the Syrian guy continued to serenade us with his flamenco playing. Lionel Messi just couldn’t find a clean strike though and so the few Germans behind us finished the night quite happily after that sly goal in overtime.

We had to make our way to Canakkale the next day so as to do the Gallipoli tour. This allowed us to continue down south once we were done and to get some good rest instead of trying to fit the tour into a 12 hour day as we had heard some other people do. The thing in Turkey is you can’t really do a great deal of planning ahead. You can’t book most things online and you sort of just rock up and hope there’s a seat. This had Elisha pulling her hair out but it works quite well. Transport is in abundance and we were to learn this once we got to the Otogar. This was a mission in itself. We had to catch a tram several stops from the centre of Istanbul, then walk across to a Metro station and catch a train 8 more stops to the Otogar. The Otogar is a large bus terminal usually several kilometres out of the city. From here, a ring of over 100 companies advertised buses to pretty much anywhere in Turkey. You basically picked anyone you liked, walked through the doors, purchased a ticket and within half an hour found yourself on a bus headed for your destination. So stop stressing Elisha.

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We left Istanbul still far from in love with it but knowing we’d only scratched the surface. I’m not sure if I’d ever go back but thankfully, the rest of Turkey has since bridged that gap. As I posted of Facebook, you can visit Istanbul or Turkey, but they sure as hell aren’t the same place.

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