Monday 4 October 2004, 12:00 Turkey time
This is the biggest city I've ever been in, and I'm under no illusions that, firstly, while there's certainly a lot of money floating around this place, this is for the most part a third-world city with corresponding infrastructure, and secondly, I'm well outside my comfort zone.
After the Kaçkar experience (see Day 61), I decided it was safest not to chance it on the local food where it doesn't come specifically recommended. At times, I have survived on Diet Coke (called Coca-Cola Light in Europe and Turkey), which you can buy out of a fridge even in small shops, and potato chips in a sealed packet. I have, however, eaten at two decent restaurants in the last few days. The first is Lale (The Pudding Shop), on Divan Yolu pretty close to the Blue Mosque, a restaurant established in 1958 and still owned by the same family, which used to be the start of the "hippy trail" to Kathmandu. Nowadays, while the service and food are excellent, it is quite pricy. The second is Orban (Anatolia) Restaurant on Piyerloti Caddesi near my hotel. The staff are extremely friendly, the food is excellent (I recommend the Adana Kebab if you like spicy and Urfa if you don't) and well within my budget, and when I was stuck for money the guy even shouted me an apple tea while I chatted with some British tourists. While I doubt his real name is actually Nigel, he's provided most of my enjoyable dining experiences in this city. There's a free bellydancing show in the evenings, I'm thinking of checking it out tonight - my last night in Istanbul.
Let me offer you an insight through my eyes of the city in which I presently find myself. This part, Sultanahmet/Eminönü, is full of small, steep streets with traffic that probably would run you over. Traffic in general in Istanbul is completely insane, and often ignores traffic lights and other road signals. As with most places, the worst are the taxi drivers. Many footpaths are dangerous to use by way of being broken up or under maintenance, so most locals walk on the road and ignore horns, diving for cover only when they're about to get hit. The horns get annoying after a while, but I don't mind some busdrivers who have installed almost cartoonish ones (including the Fez bus driver).
The lack of hygiene here is palpable. You don't have to walk far to find a pool of offputtingly smelly water on a road (or just wet patches), or a pile of rubbish. Abandoned cats exist everywhere - some barely the size of my shoe or even smaller - and get very territorial with each other about rubbish piles. However, they're timid with humans and most probably will walk or run away from you. The oddest bit for me is that some of the food shops and street merchants operate next to the most smelly bits. You wonder how they sell anything!
A few safety tips. Firstly, if someone is trying to get you to come into their shop or is trying to get your attention (even just saying hi), act like they don't exist and walk on. Even saying "no" to them is taken as encouragement, and they will hassle you. It is hard to completely ignore them, but you just have to do it. This applies as much for 6-year-olds as for adults - I've had kids try to sell me stuff and get very insistent. Also, if you don't have a watch on and someone who is clearly not a lost tourist asks you the time, they're most likely trying to find out what pocket you keep your valuables in. Treat them like the others.
Another thing to watch when crossing bridges is that they are congested with fishermen trying for their daily catch, and they don't watch behind them. Just make sure that when you're passing them by, that you don't get hit when they withdraw their line.
Also, don't venture out of known areas without a map. I recommend the map from HI-Cordial House for 3 million, and although not all streets are marked, most streets don't have signs anyway. If you're looking for signs, turn down any road and look for little blue signs on the sides of buildings which have the street number, street name and neighbourhood - but you have to be really close to them to see them at all.
Finally, there are a number of scams which operate. I had read Tom Brosnahan's excellent Turkey Travel Planner
website (which offers a wide range of useful and interesting information), but I'll draw your attention to this page
and its links as I agree with all of it. Yesterday evening, I got a bit lost coming out of Taksim/Beyoglu district and kept on walking anyway as I knew I was headed in the right direction. A boy of about 19 came up to me and started a conversation with me. He said he was from Cyprus and was going to work with his uncle. He seemed friendly but I was wary. Among other things, he started asking where I was from, also questions which were designed to determine my financial status and credit cards, whether I wanted to see Turkish women, or even men, and started recommending hamams (Turkish baths) to me. My experience the other day in the Turkish bath revealed you put your valuables in safe locking facilities. This was fine in Cappadocia, but I'd imagine this guy would have had arrangements with the particular establishment. I handled it by answering everything vaguely, implying that I was basically poor, and that I had a group I was part of who were expecting me back at a given time. He followed me onto the Ataturk Bridge, at which point I picked up the phone, dialled a friend back in Australia and started speaking in a mix of Polish, Hungarian and random syllables, making sure to recite each of the streets, bridges and suburbs clearly in English. The kid got scared and parted ways with me. I was a bit freaked out but as usual, I survived without losing a penny.
I've been potentially scammed so many times around the world, and every time, it's stayed in the potential territory. I think this goes back to the fact that I'm an eternally suspicious and untrusting person and, although I'm a nice guy who at times finds it hard to be assertive, when it comes to the crunch I can do it. I think it's just a matter of remembering that you owe this person nothing, that merely their being friendly to you entitles them to nothing, and that walking away and/or being rude to them does not cost you anything and you'll be gone in a few days anyway.
What I've done in the past few days
- On Saturday, I walked up Babiali/Ankara Caddesi, the university/publishers' quarter, and checked out many small bookshops and such. While most of the books were in Turkish, it was an interesting way to kill a bit of time. Afterwards, it was on to Eminönü, the port of call for the boats and ferries, where one could check out the street sellers, the nearby Galata Bridge, and the mosques nearby. You get an excellent view of the Galata Tower and Dolmabahçe from here. A word of warning - avoid the WC under Galata Bridge. Don't ask why - just avoid it. At night, I headed off around the back of the Sultanahmet Mosque to Akbiyik Caddesi, a slightly more happening spot full of young backpackers, pubs, Fez's head office and the HI-Orient Hostel, which seemed decent. There's a bar under it with bellydancing shows (almost ubiquitous in Turkey, it seems) and drinks at the sorts of prices one would usually expect to pay. I got lost on the way back, but found my way out of it eventually.
- Yesterday, I went up Fualpasa past Beyazit Mosque and the University and around Suleymaniye Mosque, which is in quite a hard-to-get-to location if you're walking. Near the mosque is a pleasant botanical garden with no entrance charge - great place to stop for lunch or a water if you've brought some. Then wound down the zigzaggy little streets into the sort of area that Turkish people actually live, before crossing the Atatürk Bridge into Beyoglu. The Galata Tower (7 million entrance charge), a 13th-century Genoese tower in excellent condition which overlooks the city, reminded me of some of the other observation towers I've been up. The outside viewing galleries give you an overview of the entire Golden Horn region, the Istanbul bit of the Bosphorus, the Asian side, the mosques and Topkapi Palace, and the bridges. After getting lost briefly, I found my way to Istiklal Caddesi, the main shopping street of Istanbul. This is like Hay Street Mall, but 2.5km long and twice as wide with tramlines going up the middle of it, and impossibly crowded for its entire length. I found that the crowds actually detracted from my ability to shop in it as the pedestrians were as crazy as the motorists. At its end is Taksim Square, where various political events in past times have occurred.
- Today I haven't really done much at all. Today is my last day in the Turkish Republic - there is so much to do in Istanbul, but I'm not in an ideal location for getting to many of the attractions. I'm hoping to see the Kariye mosaic museum today, though - it's a bit out of the city and I am hoping it'll shake my present feeling of claustrophobia just a little bit.