Istanbul, Turkey

January 3rd 2014, 3:01:00 pm

After flying into Istanbul Attaturk airport we spent the morning hiding out at the airport in the air conditioning and waiting for the time we'd agree to meet at our apartment with our AirBNB host. We got a taxi from the airport and my first impressions of Istanbul proper were that everything appeared so clean, modern and organised. The highways were multi-lane, there was nobody wandering out trying to sell things to passing traffic, traffic flowed very quickly and efficiently, people drove on the correct side of the road and actually stayed in their lanes for the most part. It's amazing how much your direct prior experiences can colour your perceptions of a place, the Turkey we were seeing was at odds to the reputation that the place generally has for it's drivers.

The apartment we stayed in was located very close to Taksim Square, consisting of the whole top floor of the building and a rooftop courtyard and a fantastic view of the Bosporus. Having modern conveniences like a fridge, a washing machine and air conditioning felt very luxurious after having just spent 5 weeks camping in tents.

As soon as we'd put our bags down we headed out in search of food and quickly located our first kebabs of the trip. Very delicious and super cheap too. We continued up to Taksim square and found that the top corner of the square consisted of about 6-7 kebab shops all side by side, which we soon dubbed the kebab district. We made pretty regular trips to the kebab district on a quest to find out which one had the best kebabs but it was sort of inconclusive, they were all delicious!

Sadly that first night I got the news of my grandmother's death. She was my last remaining grandparent and it was going to be sad news to get whenever it came, but being surrounded by friend was probably the best I could have hoped for while being so far from home.

All of us headed over to the Egyptian bazaar the next morning to do some exploring. The Egyptian bazaar is right next to the grand bazaar, but a bit smaller and (apparently) a bit less tourist focused although looking back I'm not remembering a lot of stuff there I could imagine the locals coming to buy. Maybe the bulk tobacco and spices, but not the 100s of hookahs or the Kilos of Turkish delight.

We all agreed the place felt fairly busy and bustling, but people seemed a lot less forceful about getting your attention or dragging you into their shops than we were used to so it felt quite a bit more relaxed than Africa. It's interesting to read reviews of the bazaar on trip advisor where a lot of people complain about how invasive the touts are and how they couldn't cope with it all, and it really goes to show just how subjective all the reviews on there are and how much each individuals past experiences factor in.

We went an wandered around the Grand Bazaar, which as the name implies is a really huge market. The place had a strange air of familiarity to it and eventually it clicked that Constantinople that Assassin's Creed Revelations is set in, is the same city that eventually became Istanbul. I realised I'd already visited the Topkapi palace virtually, and even assassinated a Czar there. I find it thoroughly impressive that I can start to feel like I know my way around the city, based on the map design of a video game set in the city hundred of years earlier.

We found the carpet sellers had interesting and quite well thought out tactics for trying to get you into their shops. Instead of just outright saying "come to my shop", they'd often just be wandering around near tourist areas and off some help or show you around, tell you some historical information about the place; just generally being friendly and helpful, and then after they'd developed a feeling of being in-debt to them, then they'd very friendlily offer to take you to their friend/brother/cousins shop and show you around.

This obviously still didn't work well on me (not having a home is nice like that), but I have to admit I actually felt a bit bad for them compared to the average touts, and could imagine the tactics would be quite successful on a lot of people, in at least getting them into the shop.

One of the less commonly visited places we visited in Istanbul was the Australian consulate. Not because somebody lost their passport, but to vote in the Federal election. The consulate was on quite a high floor in the Ritz Carlton hotel so the views were fantastic.

Amanda, Luke and myself visited the cistern, A huge underground chamber with row after row of columns supporting the ground above it. It's claim to fame is having been in a Bond movie (it starts to feel like every city has at least one place from a Bond film after a while), and has some mysterious Medusa heads on their sides as the base of two of the columns. Extra weird when you remember this was a water storage chamber, so nobody would have actually been able to ever see them in it's day cause it would be full of water.

We went into The Blue Mosque, which was a very beautiful building, but the inside of it felt spoilt by the very low hanging racks of lights, suspended from the ceiling by a thousand wires. It really stopped the space from feeling as vast and open as it could have felt.

We were all super impressed to see that they even let women pray inside, but only from inside a little caged off part at the back where they cant be seen. So very progressive, nice one Islam! You've managed to make Tony Abbott seem a little less misogynistic in comparison.

We met up that afternoon with Leigh and Nicolette for our last drinks together as it was their last night before they were leaving us and heading back home to Scotland :(

Luke, Amanda and myself went out on an evening boat cruise on the Bosporus, which was a beautiful chance to see the city at night from the water.

We'd seen that a dentist convention was being held in town, and we actually passed it, lit up Colgate sign being the give-away.

We passed under the first bridge with it's lit up cables and got a really good view of it's light show.

Having lost Leigh and Nic, we moved from our AirBNB apartment to a hostel over in the old part of the city. The place had very friendly staff, the room was pretty nice, and up on the top floor of the hostel there was a rooftop bar with a pretty amazing view of the Hagia Sofia.

I did some solo exploration of some of the museums and palaces as Amanda was unwell and Luke wanted to work on some HCTP videos. I got a Museum card and headed to the Archaeology museum which had an interesting exhibit on excavated shipwrecks, well preserved because they'd been buried in silt, but they'd been wet so long that they could not let them dry out naturally without the wood warping, so they'd had to spend many weeks making them dry extremely slowly.

After that I went into the Topkapi Palace, a huge site with pretty magnificent grounds showing off the lovely mix of colours, patterns and architecture from the periods when it had been inhabited.

I had a slight misunderstanding about the museum card, thinking it allowed me to enter any of the museums for the three days it was valid, but it turned out it only let you into each place once during those 3 days. To get to the Harem you needed to already be inside the Topkapi Palace, so my plan to look around the palace that afternoon and come back and check out the Harem got changed up and I had to rush a bit through both to fit them into the already late afternoon.

The Haram consisted of some beautifully decorated quarters for the sultan, his family and his concubines, but quite a number of interesting sounding areas (for example the concubine baths) were completely closed off for restoration works.

One evening in Istanbul I decided to find a barber to get my beard trimmed properly since it was pretty long at this point, and extremely shaggy. It was probably the first time I'd paid a barber in about a decade. The guy was very thorough, thinning the sides and giving it a much better shape. He also shaved my head with a straight razor, trimmed my nose hairs, my eye brows, and my ear hairs, then waved a lit cotton tip soaked in something flammable around my ears to burn off hair and wax. Afterwards I felt the neatest I had in many months.

On our last day there I went into the Hagia Sofia "Museum", a huge building that used to be a mosque. Calling it a museum was a bit of stretch because there wasn't really any much information about anything to be found inside. It was in the same realm of size as the Blue Mosque, but felt for more vast and open without all the wires and lights that cluttered up the Blue Mosque.

We went out for a nice dinner on that last night and had our first Testi kebabs. They're a kebab that is cooked in a clay pot shaped like a vase, which during the serving they make quite a show of turning the pot upside down with foil over the top to keep everything inside, and then smashing the bottom of the pot off carefully and then pouring the casserole out through the smashed off bottom. They'd obviously been slow cooked for a very long time as the meat was so incredibly tender it just felt apart on your fork, and the whole thing was super delicious.

We were up before sunrise the next day to catch our flight to Goreme in Capadocia, home of the fairy chimneys and hundreds of hot air balloons.