The blog is not finished! But after the Theft (yes, capital letters), the want/need to update the blog took second fiddle to dealing with the Theft and just finishing the trip sans computer. Since being home, it's been hard to get that motivation to complete it. But I will. Ever so slowly. Please be patient!

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Straddling the Continents in Istanbul

Days 286-291, September 9-14, 2011

My last official stop in Europe. It was an odd feeling on that 24+ hour train ride from Bucharest to Istanbul. Part of me was sad to be so close to the end of this portion of my trip. Another part was excited with the prospect of new cultures and experiences that were surely to come. Istanbul was going to be a great way to ease into the culture shock as the city itself spans two continents; the only city in the world to do so.

Getting into Turkey was a breeze, though for Canadians it can be a ugly little dent to the wallet. Of all countries, Canada has to pay the most for their Visa, which can be purchased on arrival both at the airport or any land border crossing. The cost: US$60. And they only accept American Dollars or Euros. The train border crossing I went through at 3 in the morning was super easy. Stand in one line, get your visa sticker in your passport. Stand in the next line to get stamped into Turkey. Done and done.

The first thing that struck me as we pulled into Istanbul’s main train station was how much it already reminded me of Morocco and Egypt, with mosques dotting the landscape in every part of the city. The resemblance would be even more stark later as I explored the city.

IMG_2633Stepping off the train, us passengers were treated to an unexpected, and marvellous, sight beside us. The famous, and probably extremely expensive, Orient Express was also in the station. Glancing in the windows at just how fancy it is was more than enough for me to put that train journey on my bucket list for when I’m much, much older. And rich. With a rich husband.

IMG_2697Finding my hostel was easy, and the view from the rooftop terrace was amazing. On one side there is an unobstructed view of the Bosphorus River which is what divides Asia and Europe in this part of the world. On the other side, amazing views of both the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque.

Wandering the city, it’s hard not to draw parallels between Istanbul and cities in other Arabic IMG_2736countries. The Grand Bazaar in Istanbul was so much like the medina’s in Morocco it was scary. Maze like streets with shops of all kinds selling everything from clothing, to rugs, to water pipes, to souvenirs. The Grand Bazaar itself is completely enclosed under a roof which certainly helps keep a lot of the heat away. And with so many of the shops having air conditioning, it’s a great way to beat the heat and practice your haggling skills.

On one of the days, a group of us from the hostel wandered down through the markets that IMG_2717surround the Grand Bazaar and found ourselves at the waters edge where we purchased a ticket for a slow, leisurely boat trip up the Bosphorus to view the city from the water. It was a beautiful ride, though it certainly made me sleepy. I think I actually fell asleep at one point, the rocking from the water was that soothing.

Of course, no visit to Istanbul can be complete without visiting the Blue Mosque, the most important mosque in the entire city. After getting accustomed to having to pay a small fee to enter many(but not all mind you) of the major cathedrals in Europe, I was shocked to see that there was no entrance fee for the mosque. All they ask is that women cover their shoulders, and men wear pants. No shoes are allowed inside either. Walking in, it was absolutely stunning. The carpeting on the floor was incredibly soft and we ended up sitting for a long while saying nothing. Just taking in the entire scenery.


IMG_2773The Hagia Sophia, just across the large park from the Blue Mosque, is another major attraction in Istanbul. Actually, it is thought to be the number one attraction in the entire city. It had started off as a Byzantine style church back in the days of Constantinople, but was converted to a mosque when the Ottoman Turks invaded and took over. Earlier last century, the Turkish government decided to secularize the entire Hagia Sophia and convert it into a museum. As such, there’s now a major entry fee, but it’s certainly worth it. Restoration work has been done to reveal, in certain areas, the Christian frescos and mosaics that had been plastered over when the building was turned into a Mosque. But there are still many major artworks in the building from it’s Islamic era. It makes the Hagia an interesting mosaic of two major religions.

IMG_2786For me, even moreso than the competing frescos and art, was the pulpit and mihrab. Both were in the same area, but it was clear that this had once been a Church first as the mihrab, the semi-circular niche that faces in the direction of Mecca, is off center.

Close to the Hagia Sophia is the Underground Cistern, a massive underground(duh) water reservoir famous for it’s massive stone pillars(over 300 of them). It is used as an emergency water supply for the city, though has now become more of a tourist draw. It’s a beautiful place, with soft, orange lights giving the entire place an eerie glow. Fish swim silently under the water. My only beef was that there was no real limit to how many IMG_2844people could be in the cistern at once, so it was pretty crowded, especially in the area of the Medusa head pillars.

Istanbul is an amazing place with some amazing people. I was lucky enough myself to meet a guy going to the university there, doing his Masters in Urban Renewal. Specifically on ways to achieve urban renewal while respecting the rights and wishes of the people who already live in the area, instead of just kicking them out and making them homeless. Serhan even took me on a little walk of the area where we met and we continued our discussion. It was great times.

IMG_2899And talk about coincidences. Two days before I left, who happened to show up but Kelly from Morocco! The same Kelly who travelled with me and Jaime “the Guatemalan” in those two weeks from Fez to Essouira. It was awesome to catch up with her and hear her stories from after we went our separate ways. She even did something that has now made it onto my bucket list: hiking from Chamonix, France to Zermatt, Switzerland on the Haute Walking Trail in the Alps. 13 days of hiking. I gotta do it!

My last day in Istanbul, besides stressing out over not having proof of departure from Thailand(more on that later), gave me some time to go for a traditional Turkish Bath and Hammam. It was a different experience, to say the least. First you go into the Sauna for about forty minutes. I guess to let your pores open up? I dunno. Then this guy calls you out and sits you beside a faucet. He then proceeds to pour buckets of water on you and scrub you head to toe in soap. From there, you are made to lay down on a large bench where more soap is lathered on you and you receive a kind of massage with knuckles cracking and arms and legs being pulled in odd directions. And finally, one final scrub down with a coarse mitt.

I can at least say my skin was smooth afterwards.

Istanbul is an amazing city and I only wish I had had more time to explore it and the country surrounding. Sadly, I had been pushing Asia back so many times that I just couldn’t do it anymore. I needed to get out of Europe. It was time to throw myself out there once more. Just means I have an excuse to come back once again.

1 comment:

  1. Oh man... this makes me so eager to get too Istanbul. I am so excited. Glad it was easy to get there enter. Thats the part I always hate... I get so scared. I'm also glad you labeled the Jaime... I was like WTF & then said oh....