Thursday, 9 February 2012

Istanbul - We love you!

Istanbul, the end of the Silk Road - we'd made it. Elegant minarets pierced the frosty morning air, seagulls circled overhead, neon lights, the call to prayer, wafts of coffee mingled with shisha smoke, this is Istanbul in December. I woke up early in the morning to watch the sun rise over the Bosphorus from the hostel's rooftop lounge, before the rest of the guests emerged, bleary eyed, for breakfast. Later grabbing a fish sandwich for lunch down by the Galata Bridge and a freshly squeezed pomegranate juice on the way home. Then ending the day laying in bed listening the moan of fog horns drifting through the window as ships silently slid past.

Istanbul is vast. It is the 5th largest city in the world (when defined as the population living in city boundaries), which, when you consider all the Chinese cities is pretty incredible. There is so much to see and do it is a little overwhelming. Over five days we combined seeing the classic sights (Blue Mosque, Aya Sofya, Grand Bazaar, boat trip up the Bosphorus and Christmas shopping in the Spice Market) with visiting art galleries. There are many small galleries (some of which are in Banks) on the main shopping drag towards Taksim as well as the Istanbul Modern which has stunning views back towards the minaret laden mskyline of the Golden Horn. One day we combined a visit to a hamam with a look around the Asian side of the city. The most noticeable difference was that the call to prayer was a lot louder. After a good scrub down we did some more Christmas shopping; Turkish Delight for my Dad. I'd told him that there wasn't any Turkish Delight in Turkey so that it might be a surprise. I also wondered if he would manage to guess the flavours, especially the carrot one.

The Aya Sofya was originally a cathedral before it was converted into a mosque in 1453, before it became a museum. Whilst exploring one of the mausoleums we bumped into Helen, who we had last seen in Armenia. We arranged to meet for a beer to catch up that evening. Back at the hostel the staff turned the TV up. The footage showed a gunman armed to the teeth. More pictures of Syria, I thought. Then images of the Topkapi Palace flashed up.

At 9.50 am a Libyan gunman walked past crowds of tourists to the Topkapi Palace gate, ignoring the comments tourists made, and shot two of the guards. He made no demands from the police but wouldn't lay down his arms, so they shot him; dead. We had walked that very route just 10 mins before the incident and, bizarrely, James had commented on the slack weapon handling skills of one of the guards. We had had a pleasant enough day and had been none the wiser to the shootings until our return. The following morning, when we walked past the gates, there was no evidence of the incident at all - they are quick to get the (tourist) business back to normal here in Istanbul.

Now that we were in Istanbul and on a more standard backpacker trail, James and I had been looking forward to regaling stories of daring traveller do to fresh faced gap yearers. But every time we mentioned where we had been a blank look came over their faces and the conversation dried up. I'd try to restart it by bringing up Afghanistan; they moved tables. For the first time we came across a new breed of traveller - the professional travel blogger. Before I had just thought that travel blogging was something you used to let your Mum to know where you were and what you were up to, apparently not. However, to be a professional travel blogger it seems that you have to be female, North American and a ruthless self promoter. 

Aya Sofya

What had struck me most about being in Turkey, and this was reinforced in Istanbul, is what a nice bunch the Turks were. I was expecting the hard sell everywhere and for the men to be quite sleazy. Actually the Turks were very helpful and courteous which they combined with a fantastic sense of humour. I hadn't noticed any unwanted advances until I compared the amount of invitations I had received through my couchsurfing account with that of a fellow couchsurfer, Australian Rob. I had had 11 invitations (all from men) and he had had 1, so maybe the stereotype is justified in the digital world at least.

In short, I absolutely loved Istanbul and didn't wait to leave. It might have been the end of the Silk Road but it wasn't the end of the road for us - we still had to get back to London, overland.

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