Friday, November 16, 2007

Istanbul (Not Constantinople)

Istanbul, Constantinople, the crossroads of the old world, a place I had always wanted to visit but had seemed so far away. It was such a whirlwind I can hardly believe I was there. I should start at the beginning - an overnight 11 hour ride on a bus with no toilet, archaic border controls, and a station in "Istanbul" ten kilometers from the city center.

We had decided to go to Istanbul about an hour before the bus left, so we shoved our stuff into our bags and headed to the station in Veliko Turnovo.

The bus ride pretty much went like this: we were afraid to drink beer on the bus for lack of a toilet but did it anyway, had to get out and run around a corner at one of the stops along the way because of it, bought a bottle of wine at a truck stop that looked like any American truck stop - including the truckers, had anxiety about Bulgarian customs taking our passports because they won't just stamp them in front of you like the rest of Europe, had to get out at the Turkish border, run across a billion lanes of traffic to buy visas, run down half a mile to find the bathroom, and hope that the bus didn't leave, got back on the bus to go a few miles then stop again, walked around the overpriced shops they stop us at while they washed the bus - this was at 4am, mind you, saw orange juice! and bought it, stood around until they had finished washing the bus, bought some more beers because there was nothing else to do, got back on the bus and noticed the trucks stopped on the side of the road to sleep just like in the U.S., saw there were properly paved four lane highways in Turkey and thought we had reentered civilization, dozed for about a half hour until it was light out and I just had to see Turkey, caught a stunning glimpse of the Sea of Mamara at sunrise, was dropped off at the bus station where I had to find a WC but it cost to enter and I had no Turkish money, got a lira from a cab driver to pay for it, took a cab into the city, stopped so Tom could get some lira from an ATM, neither of us knowing the exchange rate, got out of the cab in the hostel district, ran over to a travel agency to find out the exchange rate and how much a cab should cost from the bus station - 25 to 30 lira, told the cab driver we would not pay more than 30 lira and he agreed, handed 40 to the cab driver, who proceeded to hop into his cab and give no change. It was not the first time we would be ripped off.

When we arrived, it looked to be a beautiful day. A warm breeze was coming off the sea, and the sun shone down like a diamond the Ottomans had pillaged in their warmongering. Having had no sleep, I planned on seeing some of the city and napping later on. The hostel gave us some breakfast since it was 8am when we arrived, a "Turkish" breakfast consisting of a hardboiled egg, a ton of bread, some grapes, olives, half a tomato, some cucumbers (I will probably not eat a cucumber for a year after this trip), and a host of spreads for the bread. This photo is a view of what I saw as I ate my breakfast.

A kid from Northwestern University who is studying Byzantine history in Greece was visiting Istanbul for a few days - Jacob was his name - and he sat with us. I was half asleep but somehow Tom and he had decided to see some sights together, so we finished our breakfast and set off for some stuff I was too tired to remember the names. Jacob was one of those who had particular destinations and stared more at a guidebook than what was around him, at least on the first two days. I am a person who is more content to wander around and try to get to know the city a bit, but we made a beeline for a mosque that had once been a church.

By the time we arrived after taking a couple of wrong turns, I decided I just wasn't up for sightseeing, so I set out for the hostel to sleep for a few hours, leaving them to the guidebook.

But as I walked back in a sort of zombie daze, I passed a street that showed me the water, and well, I just couldn't pass it up.

The sky was turning ominous, and I noticed dozens of freighters in the distance that were anchored - a sign that the waters were too treacherous to travel. The waves were capped with white foam and sprayed the shoreline as they pounded it. Wind blew off the Sea of Marmara while a few scattered fishermen thought they'd try their luck with the impending storms. I walked along the water tired, content, and telling myself over and over again, "This is Istanbul," unconcerned by the weather blowing in. But then the harassment started. A guy came up to me wanting to sell me something or wanting me to come to his shop or something. I'd heard about the Turks, but I was not prepared for their incessant chatter. Where you from? Can I talk to you for a minute? You are English? American? Spanish? Can I ask you a question? Do you like rugs? Just one minute, one minute of your time. Excuse me, excuse me, can I say something?

I don't know what the guy was selling, but I left the water, returned to the hostel, and proceeded to sleep for a good four or five hours, except when a woman came in and vacuumed the room. I had no idea where Tom or Jacob were, so I thought I'd do some of that wandering I had wanted to do in the morning. And I did. I just walked and walked and walked some more, looking at every crack and crevice, listening to every nonsensical word, sucking in every breath of smoke-free air (get a clue, Bulgaria!) It was pretty chilly, but not unpleasant. I walked down to the Bosphorus and thought about early school days when for some reason the Bosphorus-Sea of Marmara-Dardanelles passage way was burned into my mind. The strait was lined with fisherman and people selling fresh seafood. Oh, how my mouth longed for the taste of that glorious fruit of the sea! Alas, it was not to be, as it was Friday, and all the banks were closed, and I only had cash to exchange, and well, you kind of need banks for that, and I had no lira, so, you know, no seafood for me! So I strolled across the Galata Bridge, which I mistakenly thought was the bridge to Asia.

After I didn't walk to Asia and back, I was caught in a massive downpour. I think the entire sea had been sucked up to the sky and was being spit back down on us. I could do nothing, as I was already soaked, so I continued walking, but this time with the destination of the hostel. I thought perhaps Tom had come back and he could lend me some lira so we could go eat dinner. Me and my shortcuts. I've always had a pretty good sense of direction and thought I'd take a "shorter" way to the hostel. I didn't know I'd hit a wall - literally a 500 year old wall of the old Ottoman palace. And it was a long wall. And I'd hit the wrong end of it. And the rain came down harder. I ended up finding a gate to the palace after a much longer walk than I had wanted and somehow still held the delusion that I could find a short cut. I was walking in the right direction when I went through a gate and suddenly happened upon some metal detectors and security. I just wanted to get out of the fortress but they wouldn't let me go through. I didn't realize that this was the entrance to the imperial palace and it was closed for the day - I just wanted to get out of the rain.

I finally did make my way back to the hostel just before Tom arrived, as equally drenched. We hung our wet clothes across the room and that night, it was so hot and humid in there from the heat and our wet clothes, I thought it was going to rain inside!

The next day was much better weatherwise, though it wasn't without rain. Tom, Jacob, and I spent the day at the palace, which was full of interesting and not interesting things. I was still in awe of just being in Istanbul and stared out at the Bosphorus, the Sea of Marmara, and the Golden Horn as if they were mythical waters come to life. I tried to imagine when the city of Constantinople/Istanbul had been the most important city in the world.

For some reason, though, I thought it'd be warmer, perhaps like the Mediterranean countries. I wore a hat and gloves.

Outside the palace gate is one of the oldest churches in Turkey, which unfortunately is not open to the public. Inside the palace walls, which costs about $10 to enter, is the ruins of the Ottoman Empire, once masters to the Bulgarians and what seemed like half the world at the time. I had many thoughts run through my head as I stared at the palace walls, the remains of the treasury, the massive kitchen, and the decorous rooms of Sultans, but I will save that for later, as it is getting rather late and I am not fond of not getting a proper sleep!

To be continued...

1 comment:

  1. Is that a picture of a lighthouse? Very interesting article and the pictures are unbelievable.