By Brianna 24/October/16 Turkey
Hello friends, it's been a while! The 'Stans' have kept us busy this month so even though we are heading for India in a matter of hours, the blog is still chilling in Turkey. Despite the country's current political concerns (and a lot of eyebrow raising when we told people we would be travelling through there), it was a worthwhile and unforgettable part of our journey East. Enjoy!
Istanbul is organised chaos at its finest. And, with this in mind, Bayrampasa bus terminal, the #1 pilgrimage spot for buses, welcomed us appropriately to city life. We arrived hungover from the long overnight journey just in time to enjoy the sunrise from our hostel's roof terrace, overlooking the iconic Galata tower. The dusty pink sky revealed a sprawling mass spilling out from the banks of the Bosphorus, dotted with minarets from which muezzins were melodically belting the call to prayer, waking people up with the line 'prayer is better than sleep'. The perfect traveller playground. In our four short days we saw some spectacular sites, but the real gems of Istanbul for us were in the quirks. You could spend a lifetime uncovering all the secrets of side streets and local life, but there are a few rules to the madness that we picked up from just scratching the surface:
The first rule of Istanbul: çay (tea to the west, 'çay' or 'chai' to the East) is a way of life. A day does not begin without çay, it cannot end without çay and not a day worth living if there are no hourglasses of sweet brown nectar in between. Us Brits may pose as the tea addicts of the world but we have a lot of competition. 'Mind the çay guy!' Alex shouted as a man weaved through the anthills that perfumed the patchwork of lanes in the Spice market, delivering trays of teapots generously infused with bergamot to nearby store holders. Everybody who's everybody has a had a çay guy to duck and swerve past spatially unaware people like me to assure the tea keeps on coming throughout the day. It only took Cheddar a couple of hours on Turkish soil to consider getting someone to follow us around while we did our classic self-made city walking tours.
The second rule of Istanbul: Whatever you need, there's a district where you can buy it. And most likely multiple varieties and shops in which to purchase it. Our hostel sat in the heart of the 'light' section of the electronics district. 10 minutes down the hill, Galata bridge, the crossing into tourist territory, was where all the fishermen hung out, keeping the neighbouring restaurants fresh supply of balik ekmek. You need a new chandelier? There's a district for that. Belly dancing outfit? Axe? Dancing monkey? Well, maybe not a dancing monkey but you could ask someone; they'll know someone who knows someone with exactly what you want for good price. We were actually on the look out for a headscarf - a handy accessory for a girl travelling through Central Asia. Naturally, we went to the headscarf district, which lined the streets up to the famous 'Grand Bazaar'. We had braced ourselves to be attacked with the hectic, in-your-face hassle we had previously experienced in Marrakesh. The entrepreneurial flare was, indeed, second to none and all of the stores were eager for our business, engaging us with sales banter like 'Are you tourist or terrorist?'. However, there was none of the agro we expected and amid the hustle and bustle, everywhere we went felt distinctly calm and safe. Of course, the classic tourist cons do surface occasionally as Alex found out when he picked up a brush for a passer-by who'd dropped it 'without noticing' and thanked him by cleaning his shoes. For a fee, of course.
The third rule of Istanbul Breakfast, like çay, is an art form. And like all things in the city there's the perfect district to experience it. In Besiktas, about an hour's walk from the Galata tower and our hostel, the streets were reserved for diners rather than pedestrians or cars. Tables covered in delicious morning foods filled the road and we picked a spot heaving with locals to try our luck at ordering. Ordering, we discovered, was the foundation of the masterpiece and there was definitely a 'right' way to do it. We knew we couldn't go wrong with çay but what else? We had no clue. The table next to us looked like they had it sussed so we asked them to help us decode some of the menu. They were students from the local university and welcomed us to try their chosen dishes before ordering for us an 'off-menu' variety of eggs, breads and a traditional breakfast plate. Today, the whole country was (somewhat tentatively) celebrating Victory day, and after that breakfast we felt inclined to join them.
The forth rule of Istanbul There are a few things missing. Tourists from our part of the world, for one. On our visit to the Blue Mosque, we strolled past unnecessary queue barriers to get inside. Impressive on the outside, serene on the inside, the Mosque deserved it's status as one of Istanbul's most famous landmarks. Having never been inside a mosque before, I couldn't work out why there were a lot of men praying but no women. Muslim women, it turned out, were granted a much smaller section in which to pray at the back. Two other things that were noticeably lacking were alcohol and hummus. The disappearance of wine from bars and restaurants had Cheddar deeply concerned. Recent restrictions had limited sales to licensed 'blue' convenience stores where you could buy a beer for the small price of your life savings and your soul. As for hummus, there was none. Not one pot in any of the supermarkets we visited. Thankfully, a desperate Google of 'Where is all the hummus, Istanbul?' pointed us in the direction of Falafel House. We made our way up to the restaurant through Taksim square, buzzing with life underneath buntings of Turkish flags and canvases of Ataturk to sample the hummussy delights.
On our last day in the city we took the ferry across the straight to Kadakoy, our first glimpse of Asia. As we would come to learn, land boundaries are much more subjective than a simple 'here's Europe, here's Asia', but as far as we were concerned we had made it overland to a brand spanking new continent full of new and exiting places to explore. Europe to our West, Asia waiting on the East, there was no going back now!