Separating Europe from Asia, Istanbul is the home to over 16 million people, and in our first 30 minutes, we were fortunate enough to meet an English speaking tour guide who cut our travel time to our hostel to only 3 hours. Otherwise it would have easily been 6. Using our favorite booking site, HostelWorld, we booked the cheapest hostel we could find, Chillout Hostel off of Istiklal Street near Taksim Square. Located on the European side, Istiklal Street is happening, permanently. Tons of fashionably dressed youngsters adorn the promenade, proudly wearing their yellow colored this and that. Apparently, yellow is so in. Street performers are everywhere playing traditional music and restaurants serving Baklava, Turkish Delight, and Kebaps are interspersed with clothing boutiques. For dinner, we find a cool outdoor cafe and have Adana Kebap, a regional specialty. Consisting of pounded, minced lamb sausage with tomatoes, peppers, onions and flat bread to soak it all up, we wash it down with ayran, a salted yogurt drink that is on every menu. Afterwards, we stop for Dondurma, a sticky Turkish ice cream made so by adding orchid root. The “ice cream man” serving it to you is basically another street performer as he plays tricks on all of the customers.
On our way back to the hostel, we stumble upon a small alley where locals are playing backgammon, a favorite Turkish pastime, and smoking hookahs they call Narghile. Imitating the locals, we settle in for a few games and a smoke, choosing peach as our flavor. Neither of us are smokers, so the nicotine gives us a small buzz and before long we are giddy with laughter and begin gambling massage minutes on our backgammon games. Come to think of it, I still haven’t collected! Walking downhill, we go to the Golden Horn, a section of water that divides European Istanbul and connects to the Bosphorous Strait, snapping photos of the evening skyline before returning to our hostel.
The next day we hop the local ferry to Buyukada and rent bikes to cruise the largest island of four off of Istanbul. We pack a picnic and desperately search for a beach where we can relax. Unfortunately, the islands beaches cost 20 Lira each, about 32 dollars total, just to sit on a lounge chair. We pass and find a small patch of grass to eat our lunch. The best part of this day trip was tossing bread from the ferry to the giant seagulls who would swoop and catch it midair and enjoying the coastal view of Istanbul. For dinner we have Doner Kebap, Turkeys world-famous sandwich. The place we stop is unimpressive and we confirm that the Doner Kebaps in Germany are better because of their white sauce. For dessert, we buy a box of Turkish Delight , a super sweet gelatin-like dessert, and I went to bed with a bellyache.
Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia and the Grand Bazaar
These are the three main tourist attactions in the Sultanahmet section of Istanbul and we decided to make a day of them. We start at the Blue Mosque, taking pictures of the giant spires and the impressive details inside. Men and women pray and we respectfully tiptoe around to not disturb them. Having a picnic lunch afterwards outside the compound, we wait for the call to prayer to sound so we can hurry back and see locals enter the Mosque and pray.
In the meantime, two young boys approach us trying to sell us tops and we goof around with them. In the midst of me trying to spin the darn things, the boys run away as a police officer approaches. He asks me how much I purchased the tops for and I reply that I haven’t purchased them and ask if there is a problem. “No problem, we just want to make sure tourists do not overpay for items.” Not really believing that line, I ask him what the going rate for these tops are and he tells me 1 Lira each, about 75 cents. Funny enough, that is exactly what the boys are asking for them. I have a feeling it would have turned out differently had I actually purchased them. The boys return and we decide to have some fun with them and tell them they are scaredy cats and they run from the police. Not really wanting the tops – I couldn’t get the darn things to work anyhow – we offer them 1 Lira for both and they curse us out in Turkish and walk away.
The call to prayer sounds and we hurriedly pack and follow the crowd back to the Blue Mosque. We notice men washing their feet outside before entering the Mosque. Women do not do this. We try to enter as well but unfortunately, since we are noticeably non-Muslim we are again turned away. Oh well, off to Hagia Sophia, which some consider to be the most beautiful church ever constructed.
We pay our entrance fee and walk inside. They had failed to mention to us that the main dome is under construction and is covered in scaffolding, which blocks our views. Still, the architecture is impressive and the frescoes near the main apse are stunning. Interestingly enough, since Turkey had changed its official religion, the church was turned into a Mosque at one point, and now that it is more of a museum it still has the marks of both Christianity and Islam.
Needing a caffeine fix, we stop at a cafe on our way to the Grand Bazaar. I have Turkish tea which is called Cay, pronounced Chai, and is served in a fluted glass shaped like a tulip. This tea time becomes a daily ritual for the remainder of my time in Turkey. We also try the cafes ice cream which is billed as being the “only ice cream in the world you eat with a fork and knife.” It is drizzled over with an orange reduction sauce and is absolutely amazing.
The Grand Bazaar is a giant shopping district specializing in jewelry, leather and carpets. Since we are not in the market for any of these for obvious reasons, we quickly walk around and window shop before getting lost in a back alley full of carpet shops. Fortunately, you can walk into any carpet shop in Turkey – and believe me, there must be a million of them – and get a free cup of Cay. Having not cut my hair since August of 2007, we ask the owner of the store for a suggestion and he directs us around the corner.
Since languare barriers have always been an issue for us while traveling, getting a haircut in Istanbul, in hindsight, was probably not one of my better ideas. First, I negotiate a price for both Erin and I to just get our ends trimmed, an eighth of an inch for me and a half an inch for her. Should be simple, right? The barber asks me if I would like a shave first and asking if it is included he nods his head yes. Sure, let’s do it. Best shave of my life, by far. Well, the haircut really wasn’t that bad, but for some crazy reason he wanted to “style” my hair afterwards and for some even crazier reason he thought that straightening it would actually look good. This turned out be such a bad idea that immediately upon leaving the shop, we went hat shopping. Erin’s haircut turned out to be equally bad, but apparently assymetrical is back in too. To top the experience off, the price we agreed upon, which I repeatedly asked if it was for both, was each. Plus he charged me for the shave. Bastard. At least I got a new hat. 🙂
We missed the morning bus to Cesme so we spent another day. Putting away the guide book we decided to just go for a long walk and see what we could find. From a distance we could hear loud music playing and using our ears as our guide, finally came upon what ended up being a Kurdish wedding reception. The Kurds predominantly live in the eastern part of Turkey on the border of Iraq but some have migrated west to Istanbul for better opportunities. Here in this obscure section of town, we stumbled upon a truly amazing cultural experience. Two performers, one singing and the other playing a guitar-like instrument called a Saz were surrounded by a half-circle of dancers, each with their arms interlocked over the person next to thems shoulder. I wouldn’t necessarily call it dancing, but more like a ceremonial hokey pokey. In order but not synchronous, each person in the half circle would take a small step to the right with their right leg followed by their left and then, with no apparent rhythm, make a small dip by slightly bending their knees. Slowly, the circle would move counter-clockwise. At some point, someone handed one of the young men in the half circle one red and one green handkerchief and he would do a strutting solo dance before passing the hankies to the next dancer. Tribal-like, the solo dancer would parade around the inner circle with his arms outstretched and then in a fluid motion squat all the way down to the ground before bounding upwards to continue the strut. If I had to guess, it looked like the solo dancing men were single and this dance was to attract interest from the single ladies in the crowd. We stayed for about a half hour and watched as the celebration continued before returning to our hostel and caught the overnight bus to Cesme on the Aegean coast.
We arrived early in the morning and learned that Turkey had pulled off an amazing upset during their Eurocup match against Czech Republic. The buzz was everywhere and locals were extremely excited. You could not find a TV station that wasn’t showing highlights of the game. Cesme is a small seaside town with some nice beaches so we spent two days and two nights relaxing on the beach during the day and cooking dinner, drinking wine, and eating chocolate at night while watching the futbol games.