Saturday, May 16, 2009

Istanbul - day one!

I arrived in Istanbul late last night - didn't get to the hotel until about 12:30. I had arranged beforehand to have the hotel pick me up, which was great. Since my flight was delayed I think the driver was about as happy to see me as I was to see him. We passed a major road accident on the way to the hotel, and my driver slowed down and leaned out the window to stare; I thought this was kind of unprofessional until I noticed that other people were actually stopping their cars, backing up, and getting out to watch. So then I appreciated his restraint.

This morning I woke sometime after 4AM to the call to prayer. According to Wikipedia, for Sunni Muslims the morning call to prayer includes the words "Prayer is better than sleep." I am pretty sure I disagree with this statement. But I just put in my earplugs and went back to sleep until 10:30 (just in time to get breakfast on the rooftop terrace overlooking the Bosphorous):

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(This photo is actually from the evening but you get the idea.)

I had meant to go the Aya Sofya (or Hagia Sofia, or Sancta Sophia, or whatever you like to call it) but by the time I got there, after noon, it was a madhouse; I decided to take the guidebook's advice and come as early as possible so as to avoid the crowds. This is what it looks like from the hotel terrace at sunset:
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I went to the Blue Mosque, which was basically the Ottoman Turkish response to the much Byzantine Aya Sofya. It's very nice; you have to take off your shoes, and there's all lovely carpet inside, and stained glass and loads of mosaics and inlay. I did not get any really good photos of the mosque as a whole, but I liked this mosaic:
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Then I wandered around for a while, occasionally stumbling across things like what appeared to be a tiny cemetery behind a fence just off the main street:
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and eventually I came to the Grand Bazaar, which is pretty extraordinary. I am not much of a shopper, really, and I didn't actually buy anything, and a lot of the stuff for sale is pure tourist bait, but I actually loved it.

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I liked looking at the gold jewelry best, because it was patently obvious that I had no intention of buying any of it. I did come fairly near to buying a very pretty silver bracelet with turquoise and marcasite but I hadn't intended to buy any jewelry, I couldn't remember what the exchange rate was, and I had no idea how much something like it would cost at home, so I felt that I was in an unfortunate position as far as bargaining. I think I'm going to try to get some pillow covers before I leave.

Just outside the bazaar were a bunch of people with blankets spread out and completely random assemblages of stuff for sale on the blanket. Like, a couple of watches, some coffee mugs, and what appeared to be a pile of little plastic animals, all on a mat about two feet square. Each seller had different random wares for sale, but each collection kind of made me think of stuff a crazy homeless person might collect and carry around in his or her cart. Anyway, something happened, and all the sellers started grabbing their mats and frantically scooping their stuff into bags. I have no idea what any of that was about.

Then I got hopeless lost in a commercial district where EVERYTHING was for sale; there were shops full of fishing reels, mysterious motors, sewing machines, zippers, striped canvas (like, that was all the shop sold, striped canvas), and god knows what else. That was kind of awesome. I thought about getting a zipper for the sweater I'm making with my Icelandic wool, but number one I wasn't sure if they sold them individually or just by the case or something, and number two I was daunted by the prospect of buying notions in an unfamiliar language.

I stopped and got a chicken doner kabob sandwich, and took it away to eat somewhere else, and a little while later when I found a nice place to sit down and eat it, I realized that I had not paid for it. And that I had no idea how to find my way back to the place where I had "bought" it. The sandwich was good, but I was consumed with embarrassment the whole time I was eating it! When I went to throw the rest away, I realized that the paper it was wrapped in had the shop's name and address written on it, but that wouldn't really have helped much because the street name isn't on my maps. I may try to send them the money if I still feel guilty about it tomorrow (it was only about a dollar anyhow!).

After a bit more wandering, I went to the Spice Bazaar (also sometimes called the Egyptian Market), where I bought dried apricots. Which are, oh my god, the best dried apricots I've ever eaten. I was planning to just have some to eat while I'm here (I got a half-kilo, which I should be able to take care of in three weeks) but I may got back and get some vacuum-packed so I can take them home. I might also get some saffron, because it was really inexpensive, and maybe I'd use saffron more if I weren't always thinking about how expensive it is. Seriously, though, these apricots are so good I'm going to make myself ill if I don't stop eating them right now.

There is loads of delicious-looking street food all over the place here, and I was seduced into trying a roasted ear of corn. It was not very good. The corn is not sweet! I don't know if it's a completely different kind of corn than I'm used to, or if it's just bad corn. So disappointing. Wouldn't you want to eat this?

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Let me tell you, you would be setting yourself up for disappointment. Tomorrow I'm going to try simit, which looks like something between a bagel and a pretzel. With sesame seeds instead of salt. I'm looking forward to it. There are a lot of things here that I want to eat.

I went back to the hotel for a shower and some moleskin for a little blister that was coming up, and then I went to the Basilica Cistern.

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This is, well, a huge cistern, over a thousand years old, that is right underneath Istanbul. I wish I had brought my gorillapod, because it was so cool in there but so dark it was hard to get any decent pictures. The cistern dates to the 6th century A.D. Apparently the 6th-century watchword was "Waste not, want not":

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Look, Medusa's all "ow, you guys, I can't hold this up!" The cistern was nice - perhaps a little overpriced at 10TL ($6-7) for what you get, but a nice, cool, relatively quiet touristic experience.

I say quiet, because Istanbul is loud! There's the aforementioned call to prayer, which is very nice and exotic and Oriental and all that, but also very loud. And there are people constantly trying to sell you things (I find this quite easy to avoid, actually - I have been trained to politely turn down requests for my money by Masspirg, Save the Children, Greenpeace, Mass Equality, and a variety of other well-meaning organizations). Also, people yell a lot. I have heard more bloodcurdling screams out of children today than I can remember hearing in the last year. Oh, and everyone's playing CDs and radios and things. The lovely rooftop terrace is adjacent to the lovely rooftop terrace of the Big Apple Hostel, where they place music all day long. It was mostly techno for a while, then they played "Je ne regrette rien" by Edith Piaf twice in a row, then on to some light rock. Basically, I'm glad I brought earplugs. They must have crazy good windows and AC in the Four Seasons, which is just around the corner and surely subject to many of the same loud noises.

Anyway, now I am relaxing and watching the Eurovision Song Contest and eating apricots, but I need to go to sleep soon if I'm going to be up in time to avoid the worst of the Aya Sofya lines tomorrow. So good night to anyone reading this!


Anonymous said...

Hi Kyle. I love follolwing your travels. BTW - Happy Birthday.

Anonymous said...

Love, Dad.
(Sorry - Having trouble posting a comment.)

Kris said...

Seriously, my book is talking about that very cistern! When Constantinople (as was the style at the time) was burned in the Crusades (as I guess it often was), they drained water from the cistern to put it out! When it was full you needed a boat to get around!
I'm trying to talk mom into a Turkey/Alexandria/Greece cruise. It's my goal!

seenonflickr said...

Happy birthday! Great post, your pictures are great (I like the second one a lot!) and your trip write-ups are always informative and amusing.

Take care,