A little like Iceland, you start to get an impression of Istanbul before you even step off the plane. The skyline, all pink, purple and orange in the dusk was defined by profiles of minarets and mosques in amongst all of the other buildings, driving home the fact that we were in a faraway land. Customs and Immigration was quite easy this time, the officer literally not speaking a word before stamping our passports and letting us in.
Out the front of Ataturk Airport, my mind started playing “Yakkity Sax”, watching all of the taxis vying for position, pulling out in front of each other and sometimes just stopping in the middle of the road to pick up customers. We opted for a bus to Taksim Square, which was only a short walk from our hostel. If you want to have a protest, start a riot, or even a revolution, Taksim is where the Istanbul people go. It is also the hub of nightlife in the area, but at this point, the heat was already getting to us and we just wanted to relax and get our packs off. I think we broke our thermostats in Iceland, so now anything over 20 degrees felt way too hot.
Getting off the bus and following the confusing directions to the hostel, we found out first hand how hilly the city was. At least we were going down hill. After walking right by it, and having to backtrack a bit up the hill (ugh), we checked into the Stray Cat Hostel. The hostel is named so because they actually adopt stray kittens and look after them. We were missing our cats from home, so we enjoyed having some “Substitute Cats” to play with. Once we got settled in, the reception guy gave us quite an in depth description of the city, providing us info about all of the sights we should see, and some recommendations for dinner.
After looking at a few local places, we couldn’t find anywhere close by to have a proper sit down meal, so we went to Dominos instead. The language barrier was fairly high here, but while we were waiting for our dinner, we spoke to our first local. He only spoke a few words of english, but when we mentioned we were Australian, he responded “Ah! ANZACs! Australia, Turkey, Friends!”. It was actually quite heart warming that 100 years on, the people of the country we attempted to invade had good feelings towards us.
The next day, we went into Sultanahmet Square, which is the hub of the tourist area. We decided to try something from a street vendor, and shared a bagel thing which had nutella in it. They seem to be mad for Nutella here for some reason. We were next to the Hagia Sophia, which was the worlds largest cathedral for almost a thousand years from the time it was built around 500 A.D, and was converted to a Mosque by the invading Ottoman Turks in the 1400s. A little while away was the Blue Mosque, and while we sat and ate, what I believe to be the Call to Prayer started ringing out. The two Mosques would alternate their parts of the call, so it was like they were calling to each other.
As we went through the gates to the Blue Mosque, we were targeted by our first scammer, although I’m not entirely sure what his game was. It started out with him saying hello and asking where we were from, and reassuring us that he wasn’t a guide. He gave us some information about the mosque, all very friendly, and mentioned he had a shop in the area. He kept giving us info on what to expect, and made a few more references to his shop, which was only nearby, and asked us if we wanted to look before we went to the mosque. He got quite insistent, but we held fast, and as soon as he realised we weren’t falling for whatever it was he was trying, his demeanour changed and he slinked back pissed-offedly to try another victim.
We wandered over to the Blue Mosque, and went inside. The architecture was amazing, and the building had a fantastic presence. It was here that the other tourists started annoying us. There was a partition so that those who wanted to pray could do so, and was quite clearly signed that tourists were not to go in. This didn’t stop a number of people who just had to go through and wave their selfie sticks around. This was a place of spiritual importance for many people, and it is not hard to show a bit of respect when you are visiting such a place. I felt quite embarrassed to be a tourist at this time, and it would’t be the last.
We wandered around the Sultanahmet area for a few hours, and went through a small Bazaar nearby. In the late afternoon we headed back to Taksim Square via tram and the funicular subway, which was a first for me. For those who don’t know, a funicular railway is a train that goes up a very steep incline and is usually cable driven. To go uphill under a hill was slightly surreal. At the top, we wandered down the main street and wandered down a side road to sit for a while, and have a cold beer, before grabbing a kebab for dinner and retiring to the hostel.
I will take this time to talk about breakfast, which was provided by the hostel as part of our stay. The traditional Turkish Breakfast is not what we were used to, and consists of bread, tomatoes, cucumber, cheese, olives, and of course Nutella, served antipasto style. It sounds a bit different, but was actually quite refreshing.
Once we were thoroughly breakfasted, we headed back towards the Sultanahmet area, and went to the Grand Bazaar, which was closed the day before. This place had a fantastic atmosphere, but you do tend to get hassled quite a bit by the vendors, although this happens more or less constantly no matter where you are. The vendors will make a snap judgement about you as you approach and respond to you accordingly. We were walking in the same direction, a few meters back, as another tourist, who was wearing expensive jeans and looked even to us like he had money. In the space of about 15 meters, he got hassled about 5 times by various venders, who shouted to him things like “Brother Brother, you want some ______”, whereas we were spared. I think we got off lightly as it was fairly clear that we were backpackers and weren’t here to buy rugs and other such things.
The grand bazaar itself was enormous, but around it were thousands of shops and stalls with anything from electrical equipment to socks to sweets and everything in between. We stopped for coffee, and Jess was mistaken for Turkish initially. It was quite funny, as even when he knew we were Aussies, the waiter said “Tea for the Turkish Girl, Coffee for the Aussie Boy”. All in all they were quite friendly, and I was only hassled to buy some lokum (turkish delight) two or three times, which was quite low. As an aside, “lokum" is by far my favourite turkish word, although “Sultanahmet” (pronounced sooltan-AHHCK-met) is quite satisfying to say.
Because we wanted our accommodation sorted beforehand, we had actually booked for two different hostels. At the Stray Cat, we had a private room because their rates were quite good for that, but for the remainder of the week we went back to dorm rooms at a place called Bada-Bing.
The following day, we went to the Basilica Cistern, which was built in 476 A.D., and rebuilt almost a century later in it’s current form. It was used to supply water to parts of the city, but today is purely a tourist attraction. The atmosphere is quite eerie, and visually it is quite beautiful. Probably our favourite tourist attraction that we paid for.
At this point the days have started to blend into each other, so I’m not sure when we went, but we took a ferry over to the “Asian Side”, so called because it is technically on the Asian continent as opposed to the European. The Bosphorous is the dividing line, and the 30 minute ferry was quite enjoyable. The Asian side has a similar feel to the European, but was noticeably less touristy. We wandered down some side streets and decided on a place for lunch. It was nothing special, just a place that sold doner and other standard Turkish fare. The english skills of the staff here was practically non existent, so after much hand waving, gesturing and pointing we managed to get our meal. I ordered a Turkish coffee, and they went down the street to another vendor to get it for me. I ended up having a “patso”, which is incredibly non-Turkish, being nothing more than a good ol’ chip roll. Jess had a grilled cheese sandwich, which was basically a slab of rich cheese between two slices of bread, and toasted until semi molten. Very Tasty.
Back on the European side, there was one tourist attraction that was quite amazing that was actually free, and that we didn’t even know about until we happened to walk past the small entrance to it while we were just wandering around. It was a series of crypts for members of the sultans royal family. It consisted of about 6 small buildings that were very elaborately decorated, and would have 10-20 graves inside of each one. The graves themselves were in the centre of each of these buildings, and were boxes covered with cloth. It was unclear as to whether the embalmed bodies were in these boxes, or if they were underneath. It was a little surreal in some of them, as there were dozens of small graves that would have been for small children or even infants. Out of respect to the location, I didn’t take any photographs.
The rules were the same as those of a mosque, so as we entered, we had to remove our shoes and Jess had to cover her head with a scarf. One nice aspect of this location is that there were hardly any other visitors, so it was a refreshing change from the normal cattle feeling that the other attractions had.
Jess took a few steps onto the pristine red carpet before I noticed that she was leaving white footprints. I whisperyelled at her to stop, and you could see where she stopped and ran back out. What caused the white footprints? The heat and huge amounts of walking has taken it’s toll on our feet, Jess’ mores than my own, so we bought some foot powder, which worked, but due to the copious amounts that Jess had to use, tended to make a mess everywhere, including in centuries old sacred tombs.
One of the main reasons we wanted to go to Turkey was Galipoli, the site of a long and bloody battle in World War 1 that claimed the lives of tens of thousands of Turkish, British, New Zealand and Australian fighters. Gallipoli is a small peninsula in the west of the country, and was incredibly important from a strategic standpoint, and it runs parallel to the Dardanelles, which is the entrance to the Sea of Marmara, and ultimately Istanbul. The joint forces of Aussies and Kiwis was named ANZAC, and this is where the name of our day of commemoration comes from.
The day tour we took started quite early at 5:45. We went to wait out the front of the hostel, uncaffeinated and bleary eyed. We sat down for about a minute before out of nowhere, we hear someone approaching us, saying “Tomaş? Gallipoli? Tomaş?”. Before we knew it, we were escorted to a minivan. The drive to Eceabat was roughly about 5 hours, and perhaps upon seeing the slightly uneasy expressions on our face about making this journey in such a small vehicle, the driver reassured us: “We take you to Big Bus to Galipoli”.
The aforementioned “Big Bus” was actually about half the size of a normal coach, and I think the engineers that designed it simply took the plans and squished it horizontally, as the legroom was also about half of that of a normal bus.
So, our journey began, with my knees pushed up against the hard plastic back of the chair in front. After stopping for breakfast about an hour into our trip, we passed through some of the more rural areas of Turkey, which was a nice change of scenery from the hustle and bustle of Istanbul. The man in charge of getting us on and off the bus and making sure we weren’t left in the service station toilets on our stops was a charismatic Eceabat local, who was doing well in stopping a bus crammed with tired and grumpy people from committing mutiny.
About five hours later we arrived in Eceabat, where we had lunch, and then jumped back onto the bus to head to the sites of the ANZAC battles. Our guide was more serious than our previous one, but incredibly knowledgable about the area and the events that happened a hundred years ago. We visited a number of cemeteries, ANZAC cove, which is where the initial landings took place, Brighton Beach, which is where the forces were supposed to land, as well as a number of memorials.
Upon getting dropped off back in town, we applauded our guide, who continued to blow our mind with his incredible knowledge, even if his delivery was a little rapid fire at times. However, it may have just felt that way due to lack of sleep. The drive back was fairly uneventful, but at the rest stop an hour into our journey we had one of the best meals from our time in Turkey at a service station. I had some stuffed capsicums with sauce, and Jess had a basic chicken stew. It’s made us realise that perhaps we should have been a little more adventurous with where we dined back in Istanbul. Once back at the hostel around midnight, and despite being practically comatose at this point, we chatted to a few of the other residents in the rooftop bar for a while before finally retiring to bed.
The next day was our last full day in Turkey, and was spent just wandering around, revisiting a couple of places such as the Grand Bazaar that we felt we hadn’t spent enough time in earlier. At around 10pm we went to the station to catch our train to Sofia, Bulgaria. This station is the original terminus for the Orient Express, the rail journey depicted in the famous “Murder on the Orient Express” book by Agatha Christie.
We didn’t know it yet, but the next 17 hours was to be an adventure in it’s self, but that’s a story for the next blog entry…
— Thomas, 2015.06.23