Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Istanbul, Turkey (December 6-13th, 2011)

Hello friends!
After some fiddle farting around we figured out how to change Khalid’s laptop settings to DVORAK, so now I can speed away at this blog entry. I have sent Khalid away to find the only Afghani kebab shop in the city, he has to take the tram to get there (with only the word of our hotel owner that it actually exists). Anyway, so I now have the room to myself to update you all about what Istanbul has been like! Please forgive me for not updating sooner, it's been busy!!

December 6th, 2011
So this was the day that I had to make my way from Dusseldorf to Istanbul; Shannon worked in the morning so I was on my own for the bus and the train. I made it to the train station okay but missed the first train because I could not for the life of me figure out how to work the ticket machine. And yes, it was in English, I was just a totally noob head. After making it to the airport and checking in I had some lunch and decided that Dusseldorf’s airport (Flughafen?) is my favourite, probably because they have giant buffets, and I’m all about buffets. The flight to Istanbul was fairly uneventful, I immediately regretted not having dedicated myself to learning more Turkish before I left, but that’s okay. I flew to Sabiha Gocken airport, which is on the Asian side and is the less popular airport (woo hoo cheap flights!). But then it took me two and a half hours to actually reach the hotel because the traffic was so bad. Khalid was there waiting for me (despite the fact that his flights had been delayed) and he got to tell me all about his awesome journey on Air France. We dropped our stuff and then wandered around looking for dinner. We found really cheap rice and chickpeas called Pis Pilav that they sell on the side of the street, and it was pretty good (we later read in the guidebook that this is one of the best ways to get food poisoning, woops). Then I got jipped by a street vendor into buying the grossest and most cancerous corn ever, Khalid resolved after that not to let me get bamboozled into any more food purchases. We unpacked and fell into a coma.

December 7th, 2011
First morning at Ast Hotel! The breakfast here is a traditional Turkish breakfast: bread, boiled eggs, tomato slices, cheese and olives (very Greek if you ask me). Note that as the week went on the variety kept diminishing until the last day when it was only cheese slices and olives, I think maybe they do their shopping on Tuesday night? This day can be summed up in two words: Grand Bazaar. And that’s all we did, all day, just wandered. This Bazaar has everything you want, and nothing at the price you want. But it’s so much fun to wander through! Everyone says to you “Hello miss, how may I help you spend your money?” I bought a necklace with a koranic inscription and Khalid looked for a special bowl called a jam (sp?), it’s inscribed with koranic verses and you’re supposed to fill it with water when someone is sick. He didn’t find any that day that he liked, but he might find some in his wanderings tonight. We mused about buying carpets, tea sets, copper pots, shawls, silk hangings, etc. etc., but in the end only ended up with the necklace and some halva (it’s a type of pistachio dessert, kind of like Turkish delight, this was obviously a Vicki purchase). We almost bought a $900 carpet, which upon later inspection would have been a terrible idea. But you see they suck you in, bring you tea, and all of a sudden they are taking your money, it’s marvellous. At the Grand Bazaar we had our first doner kebap (compressed meat on a rotating skewer that they shave off for you) and we definitely had liver. It was labeled as beef, but I know liver a mile away. But I like liver, so it was all good. I was jealous of Khalid because the sandwiches here are really cheap (like $1-2) but I obviously can’t have bread, so unfair. We stopped at a fruit shop on the way back and bought some pears, apples and bananas. The pears and oranges here are to die for (but this particular fruit shop had crazy prices, we would later find out). We also bought some backlava, which I tried (I cheated just this once on my gluten-free diet), and I was underwhelmed by it. I really like the halva though, must learn how to make it.

December 8th, 2011
We started this day with a trip to the Book Bazaar, which is right by the Grand Bazaar. Khalid was looking for a huge book by Rumi in Farsi. Everything he found was at least 3 volumes, which would have been a nightmare to try and pack, so we didn’t end up getting anything. We stopped next at Sultan Bayezid II Camii (Mosque of Sultan Bayezit II), which was our first mosque experience. We took our shoes off, I covered my hair and we wandered around inside. I have to be honest, my first mosque experience was not exactly pleasant. I felt like a massive intruder, of the female variety. It didn’t help that there were other tourists that had crossed the “tourist” line (literally, there’s a line) and walked right up to the front, where they were taking photos of the people praying. I don’t know, it felt like we were trespassing on private property, that’s the best way I can describe it. Right after this we went to the New Mosque, which wasn’t much better for me. Here there were women praying behind their screens at the back. And yes, I know the koranic explanation for why they pray at the back, but I still felt very aware that I was female as we wandered around. Poor Khalid, because he was loving every minute! The architecture and tile work was amazing, lots of intricate details and lots to see. I wish I had done a better job at hiding my feelings, lol. But don’t fret, my other mosque experiences were really good. After this we stumbled upon Istanbul University, which we wandered through (even though they only let us in because we said we wanted to take a photo). Once we found our way out we headed to the Spice Bazaar, which is just a little bit past the Grand Bazaar. The smell of this place was just like I imagined. Bins and bins filled with spices, henna powder, Turkish delight, nuts, dried fruit and everything in between. And holy samples, more samples than Costco. At one point Khalid said “okay, I’m  done with the sampling” and I looked at him like he had three heads. Um, hullo, free food, how could you ever be done sampling? Whatever, boys are crazy. At the end of this day it was raining and we were exhausted, but we still wandered down to the water and strolled along for a bit. The owner of our hotel said that strolling in the rain is very romantic :) 

December 9th, 2011
Today we walked up to the Hippodrome, which used to be a large stadium where they had chariot races. We took pictures with the Egyptian Obelisk (a massive, engraved pillar from 1500 B.C.) and then headed to Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts. This Museum was really great and apparently has one of the most impressive old carpet collections in the world, which Khalid obviously loved. He touched one too before I could pounce on him, I thought we would get kicked out (but no one saw. Khalid’s excuse was “I wanted to feel if it was good quality!”). After the museum we went to Ayasofya (Hagia Sophia), an old Byzantine church that was later converted into a mosque. Both of our jaws were on the floor the whole time (including when one of the security guards spit on our feet, that totally happened). Here is where I learned more about mosques. Muslims wash their feet, hands and face before praying (ablutions). Inside the mosque there is a muezzin mahfili, a raised platform for the mosque official. At the “front” of the mosque is the mihrab, an ornate door that points toward Mecca, and the minbar, a pulpit beside the mihrab that the Imam delivers the sermon from on Fridays (I kept calling this the “minibar.”). After a long time of wandering around Hagia Sophia we had some milk pudding and ate dinner at a place right by our hotel. I had kofte and rice! The kofte (spiced beef patties) was not as good as Khalid’s parents make, but it was still pretty delicious. I also tried the yogurt, Khalid thinks between that and the cancerous corn I am definitely going to get food poisoning). Then we crashed in our room for the rest of the night and drank Turkish tea (half strong brewed tea, half hot water… they think it tastes better than simply making weak tea). A note to our hotel room, sh-ady. I won’t even describe, you can ask Khalid when he gets back to Guelph ;)

 December 10th, 2011
Neither Khalid nor I were woken up by the call to prayer this morning, we must be getting used to it. As the breakfast variety at the hotel dwindled, the more fruit and German chocolate I started eating in the morning (thanks Shannon!). Our first stop was the Blue Mosque, arguably the most famous mosque in Istanbul. It has 6 minarets (the large spires/towers outside that the Imams used to climb to call prayer), which at the time of its construction was considered sacreligcous because the people thought it sought to rival Mecca. This mosque was my first positive mosque experience! There were lots of people milling about and you don’t have to cover your hair. I think I felt more welcome here, that’s probably why I liked it more. I think with churches it’s different because anyone can come in and sit down (you are apart of the faaaaaaaaaamily! Anyone know that song?). With mosques it doesn’t quite feel that way, so I think the touristy vibe of the Blue Mosque helped to make me feel like I belonged. The inside is simply beautiful and when the sun comes through the windows it makes everything glow soft pink and blue. There’s also lots of tiling here, which reminded me of the azulejos in Lisbon (I sure am glad I went to that museum now!). After the Blue Mosque we hit Gulhane Park, which used to be apart of Tokapi palace (the “i” in Tokapi palace is not really an i, but I can’t make that symbol here, so bear with me). If you climb up to the top of the park you get a beautiful view of the Bosphorus, and it was a beautiful day. The plan was to go to Tokapi palace, but we decided instead to walk along the Bosphorus, across the bridge and into Takism, the newer part of Istanbul (we are staying in the old part of the city). By the by, the Bosphorus is the water inlet that leads to the Black Sea and connects it to the Sea of Marmara. The prices in Taksim were surprisingly better than the Grand Bazaar, which was a pleasant surprise. I checked our guidebook and found a great old book shop that I thought Khalid would like, so we set out to find it. After climbing through some unmarked streets we ended up walking into the busiest shopping street in Takism (totally by accident). The street is called Istiklal and it was decked out for Christmas, which I loved! We spent the rest of our time just wandering through the street and the shops. Here I bought another fleece sweater and we even found a fancy restaurant where I had chocolate pudding and Khalid had milk pudding (the pudding thing is about to become a theme, you will see). We walked back from Takism at night and along the Bosphorus, watching all the fishermen and the ferries mill around. As a side note, the seagulls here sound like crazy lunatics, it’s difficult to even describe. If you come to Istanbul, make sure you journey down to water so you know what I mean. When we got back to the hotel I tried on my sweater again and realized that they had forgotten to take the security button off. Takism is a pretty far walk for us, so we decided to champ it and try to remove the button. Those things are like steel traps, I tell you. After about an hour we managed to get it off, but I ended up with four little holes and some blood on my sweater, lol (Khalid will tell you I was more concerned about the blood on my sweater than by the fact that he was bleeding… but that’s a lie, because I totally pilfered my bandaid cache for him). The rest of the night was spent on the computer, trying to figure out what I was going to do about my cancelled flight to Kathmandu (thanks for that mini heart attack, flydubai).

December 11th, 2011
Today there was no panir cheese for breakfast and I berated Khalid, saying that we needed to get up earlier before all the cheese has been eaten. We walked to Suleymaniye Mosque, almost as famous as the Blue Mosque and sitting behind Istanbul University. This mosque is renowned for being light inside and having fabulous security guards (that last observation is mine). This mosque is legitimately all pink inside, it was great. We had read in the guidebook that there was a northeast set of stairs that leads you to a balcony overlooking the inside of the mosque, where the sultan used to pray. When we asked the security guard he said that the stairs were closed, but then he took a quick look around and took us up them anyway. How great! That’s a really great memory of mine. After the Sulemaniye Mosque I endeavoured to find a famous little bar that sells boza, a fermented grain mixed with water and sugar (looks like mucous) that reportedly increases strength and virility. I don’t know how we ever found the bar because I was sure we were on the wrong street. Anyway, there were lots of Turks there and Khalid said the drink was good. We were feeling kind of tired at this point so we headed back to the hotel and napped. Isn’t that lame? What bad tourists we are. Strengthened from the boza Khalid did most of my laundry for me and fashioned a clothesline to hang everything on (what a great guy to have around!). The clothesline ran into the bathroom though, so we could no longer close the door. It got personal (good thing we are “married,” hey-o!). We had our kofte for dinner again and did some more wandering. Also, today was raspberry pudding day.

December 12th, 2011
(The lack of panir cheese has nothing to do with the time we get up and everything to do with the fact that there is no panir cheese anymore. What am I supposed to do with just olives?!)
Today we finally made it to Tokaip palace! We briefly considered not going and then made ourselves do it, and it’s a good thing we did because this is quite honestly the most massive museum I have ever been to.  After touring the courtyard we visited beautifully tiled rooms, like the circumcision room and made our way through the many exhibits around the perimeter of the palace (none of which you could take photos in, so you’ll have to take my word for it). These small exhibits had things like old jewellery, fancy bowls (and dessert cups, which were my favourite), even an 86 karat diamond that was found in a rubbish dump (if only I were so lucky to find massive diamonds in the trash). Khalid’s favourite part were the exhibits that had all the inscribed swords, bows, armour, maces, what have you. I’m not big into war artefacts, but he did listen to me gush about the jewelled dessert cups, so I got myself into it. We accidentally found an exhibit with old carpets and textiles, so that was cool. They also had exhibits with things like pieces of Muhammed’s beard, Muhammed’s tooth, and even the prophet Joseph’s turban?! I doubted the legitimacy of these things, but I didn’t say so (but really, that could be anybody’s hair in there…). We spent four hours wandering around Tokapi palace and didn’t even get to the Harem, which is a whole other section (that you have to pay extra for, naturally). We were starving at this point, so we had our doner kebap with pilav… and then pistachio chocolate pudding, as per my request. Khalid tried Turkish coffee, which he said wasn’t totally great (and quite expensive for the dinky little cup they give you. But my pudding was fantastic, so I wasn’t disappointed). One of the waitors took our picture and told us to write a review for the restaurant because we had been there so many times (what can I say? I like my Turkish pudding! Which is really just regular pudding, but you eat it in Turkey).

December 13th, 2011
And that brings us to right now! Khalid isn’t back from the bazaar yet, so I’m going to assume that he found the Afghani kebab place. Today we mostly did chores, my chores, because life goes on even when you travel! Some of my laundry wasn’t dry, so we took it across the street to the Laundromat. The lady was very kind but spoke no English, so we made use of elaborate hand gestures to indicate we only wanted the dryer, lol. I had to call flydubai about my cancelled flight, which the lady said wasn’t cancelled, so what’s up with that? I guess we’ll find out when I show up at the airport tomorrow. I found a cheaper shuttle back to Sabiha Gocken airport, so I booked that. We also had to go to the eczane/apotheke/pharmacy because I’m having a crazy allergic reaction to something. Khalid looked up what “antihistamine” was in Turkish… it’s “antihistaminik”. After successfully getting some topical antihistamine, Khalid suggested I get some rubbing alcohol which works too. And so proceeded the pharmacist to be very offended that we were asking him for alcohol :) It wasn’t until I grabbed a paper and pen and wrote “isopropyl” that he knew what we were talking about. After leaving, Khalid commented: “thank god for science.” Amen to that, brother. The last adventure chore of the day was trying to find a bank that would take my debit card and give me USD… not as easy as you might think. In the end the winner was HSBC (though figuring out which ATM to use was another story). What else happened today other than me writing you this? I took to the road because the sidewalk looked slippery, Khalid kept saying “Vicki, could you please walk on the sidewalk?” And then, to prove his point, I actually got hit by a car. Well, my purse got hit by the car and the driver yelled “this place is for ME!” I think Khalid was in on it with him, because what kind of perfect timing is that? I walk on the sidewalk now. I got us lost a number of times (i.e. the right street but the wrong way). Khalid must think I’m the world’s worst navigator. And so friends, thus ends my time in Istanbul! Hopefully the next time you hear from me I will actually be in Kathmandu and not stuck in Dubai (what good will my winter clothes do me there?).

Lots of love from Turkiye!
P.S. Khalid just got back, he didn't go the Afghani place, he went shopping for PJ pants for me (man do I love this kid)

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