Oh boy, this is going to be a long one.
I wasn’t totally sure what to expect when I landed at the airport in Istanbul. After getting off the plane I made my way over to the immigration area and found the appropriate line. I had my tourism visa ready but when I got to the immigration officer he only checked my passport. He looked it over, scanned it, and then stamped it and let me go. Somehow this seemed anticlimactic. Then again, it’s always better to have a boring immigration experience than an intense one. To get to the old part of the city, where my hostel was, I needed to take out some money from an ATM to buy a metro token. I got my cash but the bills were in too large a denomination for me to use on the machines at the tram, so I went over to the airport grocery store to break one of the bills. It was there that I had a moment of fake culture shock. One of the entrances to the store appeared to read “girls entry.” While Turkey is a Muslim majority nation with strong Islamic influences throughout society, I had figured that separate entrances/facilities for men and women were relegated to places like Saudi Arabia and Iran. It would be later that I would find out that what I actually saw was merely a sign that needed to be fixed/replaced. The Turkish word for “entrance” is “giris” and on the sign the second letter “i” looked more like a lower case “l.” So, the sign actually just said “giris entry” instead of “girls entry.” I went down to the metro station and bought a token. When you purchase a ride on Istanbul’s mass transit system, in the place of a paper ticket you get a small plastic coin, which you use to enter the station. Unlike most other places, you can’t transfer for free between trains/trams, so for each leg of your journey you have to buy another token. Granted, at the time each token costed 4 lira, which was something like $1.33, so it’s not like I was worried about going broke buying tokens. The ride from Ataturk International Airport to my hostel took about an hour and involved one transfer between lines. The hostel was located nearby both the Topkapi Palace and Hagia Sofia, and for most of my time in Istanbul I was able to walk to wherever I wanted to go to. For me the biggest thing adjusting to when I arrived in Istanbul was not any cultural differences, but the fact that you cannot drink the water out of the faucet. Well, you can, but you’ll get sick if you drink it regularly. The chemicals put in the water to clean it are in higher concentrations than what you get in most of Europe, though it is still safe to do things like laundry and bathing in it. Everyone drinks bottled water and nearly every single store in Istanbul sells bottled water. At one time I accidentally drank some of the faucet water and didn’t feel so good for about 15 minutes. After settling in at the hostel, I went out for a walk and crossed the Golden Horn, which is the water inlet that divides older and newer parts of the city. Originally I was thinking of going up the Galata Tower on the other side, but at this point in the day the sun was in a bad position for taking photos looking southwards, so I crossed back to the old city and paid a visit to the New Mosque. I don’t know what’s “new” about it. Alongside the mosque is the Istanbul Spice Market. A lot of the shops in there are selling the same stuff and can be hard to tell apart. It’s a pretty touristy place, but if you’re willing to look you can find a bargain or two. After some more walking around the area, I returned to the waterfront and then walked out to the Sarayburnu Park at the northeast tip of the old city. The sun was setting and a number of fishermen were out along the rocks, casting their lines in to the water. For dinner that night I ate the sandwiches I had bought at the Sarajevo airport. The hostel had a rooftop balcony with a decent view of the city, so I ate up there. That balcony would become my normal end of day spot.
The next morning I had a near disaster. I was cleaning the lens of my camera when I accidentally dropped it. The gears that focus the lens were knocked out of position but thankfully I was able to push them back into place and get the camera working properly again. This little misadventure delayed my departure by an hour but once I got outside I didn’t stop until the end of the day. I started out at Topkapi Palace, home of the old Turkish sultans. There I purchased a three day pass but the guy at the ticket booth gave me a five day pass instead. Not sure why that happened, but I wasn’t going to question the windfall. It took me about three hours to go through the whole palace grounds. One of the most notable parts of the palace was the relics rooms, which held a number of items that supposedly belonged to famous ancient people. I say “supposedly” because I’m not really sure how you could authenticate some of these things. Anyways, among other things, I saw the staff of Moses, the sword of David, and a bow and sword of Muhammad. Towards the end of the relics area was one of the guys whose only job is to memorize and sing the Koran. There was a screen with a translation of what he was singing, and I actually recognized the section being sung as the part of the Koran that draws on the Arabic infancy account of Jesus, which gives a similar story to the one found in the Gnostic gospel of Thomas. When I was leaving the palace I was thinking over the similarities between it and the Alhambra palace in Granada, Spain. Both are grand palaces of sultans, but personally I think I prefer the Alhambra overall. I moved on to the nearby Archaeology Museum. The museum is split into three parts and I checked out all of them. The main section with most of the artifacts was under renovation and not everything was on display. Next to the Archaeology Museum is the overlooked Hagia Irene Church. It looks a lot like a smaller version of the nearby Hagia Sophia and was the city’s lead church until Hagia Sophia was built. The interior is empty and not particularly notable. I then went into Hagia Sophia. As some of you know, Hagia Sophia was originally a church, but got converted to a Mosque when the Turks took over the city, and today it is a historical site. Part of the interior was covered in scaffolding for restoration work but the sheer size of the open space inside it is still breathtaking. You need a wide-angle lens to properly photograph the inside of Hagia Sophia, and even then photos don’t really do it justice. I could have spent a long time looking around Hagia Sophia’s interior, but I knew I needed to keep moving, so I eventually left. A short walk from Hagia Sophia is the Blue Mosque, but I got there too late in the day and it was now closed to visitors for the day. However, the Turkish Arts Museum across the street was still open, so I went in there. The museum chronicles various arts in Turkish and Islamic culture and was good enough for a half hour or so. Outside the museum there were a pair of obelisks, one of which looked Egyptian, which if nothing else is a status symbol for a city or nation. Your country isn’t anything until it’s got a stolen Egyptian obelisk. The sun had now gone down and I got groceries on the way back to the hostel.
It was Friday on the following day, so all the mosques were closed to the public for all or most of the day. After leaving the hostel I walked across the Galata Bridge to the new town and climbed the hill up to the street leading to Taksim Square. I could have taken a funicular up the hill, but having lived in Colorado as long as I have, I felt compelled to climb. Taksim Square is a large, round, open area with a monument to Ataturk in the center. I may have mentioned this already, but Ataturk is the title of the guy who founded the modern state of Turkey. There were lots of Turkey flags flying around the square. Next to Taksim Square is Gezi Park, the site of the 2013 protests which were triggered by a government plan to bulldoze the park and build more shops and apartments. I got a video walking around Taksim Square and then made my way back towards the funicular. On the way back I paid more attention to the stores lining the street and was struck by how many western food companies were there. I remember seeing McDonalds, Burger King, Starbucks, Pizza Hut, KFC, Arbys, Shake Shack, and a few others that I’m forgetting at the moment. This sort of thing really shouldn’t have surprised me, but it did. Ignoring all of those food offerings, I instead bought one of those bread rings that are sold all over Istanbul. Not sure exactly what they are, but they are sort of like a soft pretzel but made out of a different kind of dough. Continuing my walk, I stopped at an old Eastern Orthodox church and a Catholic church. When the Turks took over Istanbul, the vast majority of churches were converted into mosques, but a few were allowed to remain. When I got back to the funicular I did a short visit inside a whirling dervish school and then walked part way down the hill to the Galata Tower. The tower costed 25 lira to go up, which felt borderline overpriced, but the view was just good enough to warrant the expense. It has a 360 degree view of Istanbul, though you can’t see the entire city because of how large the city is. After finishing up at the tower I walked the rest of the way down the hill and crossed the Galata Bridge back to the old town. I visited the Spice Market again and bought some dried mango slices after doing some price comparisons. Then I navigated the maze of streets southward until I reached the Grand Bazaar. I spent over an hour just walking around inside the Grand Bazaar, but truth be told, I was disappointed by the lack of variety. There was also the issue that most of the stuff in there was likely mass produced over in Asia and shipped in, rather than being made in Turkey or nearby. I saw most of the bazaar (a claim I know some would dispute, but I’m very thorough) and came out through the south entrance/exit. At one of the main roads I noticed a gelato shop, which you might not expect in Istanbul, and I gave it a try. The gelato was decently good, but couldn’t compare to the gelato in Italy. I got a few more groceries nearby and then made the long walk back to the hostel. Before going to bed I uploaded some photos to social media and did some planning for the next day.
During breakfast the next morning I was talking with an Australian named John and an Englishman named Ron and we agreed to meet up for lunch. With that plan now set, I used the hours before lunch to do a few things. I walked over to and took a look at the Burned Column, near the Grand Bazaar. The column originally had a statue of Constantine on top, but that was lost, and later it got a cross on top, but that was lost too. Over the years a number of fires have swept through the area, giving the column its scorched appearance, and today it just stands around, ignored by almost everyone. Next I made my way towards the Grand Bazaar but went inside the Nuruosmaniye Mosque, which is right next to it. The marble exterior reminded me of some of the churches in western Europe, but otherwise there was nothing that stood out (in my mind) about the mosque. Inside the Grand Bazaar I went into the core of the bazaar, called the Cevahir Bedesten, and found a shop that I had passed the day before. The particular shop sold tobacco pipes made from meerschaum, a type of clay native to Turkey. The previous night I had done some online research and everything I had viewed indicated this shop sold genuine, handcrafted pipes made in Turkey. I don’t smoke, but a friend of mine who was getting married does, so I bought him a pipe as a wedding gift. With my friend’s gift finally in hand (I had been on the lookout for a gift since arrival in Europe) I walked out of the bazaar and moved north, passing Istanbul University and arriving at the Suleymaniye Mosque, which was the meetup point where John and Ron were going to be waiting. John was already there and I had a few minutes before Ron was supposed to show up, so I went inside the mosque. The interior was really nice, but I think I liked the Blue Mosque a little bit more. When I came outside there was still no sight of Ron, so I went to go look for him while John waited at the meetup point. Sure enough, I found Ron on the other side of the mosque, and he was looking for John and me (he had been mistakenly waiting for us on the wrong side of the mosque). I brought him back to John and then we all went over to a nearby restaurant for lunch. John had been to this place before and was able to get us back into the kitchen so we could look over what was being cooked and select our meals. I had some sort of meat dish with rice, and a blue can of Coca Cola, which tastes exactly the same as the Coca Cola that comes in red cans. We had a long lunch and talked over our respective travels. John is retired and was in Europe purely for vacation, while Ron is an author who writes historical fiction and was getting close to the end of a long trip across Europe. The next leg of his journey was going to take him north into Bulgaria, Romania and then into Ukraine. When the lunch was over I said goodbye and returned briefly to the hostel to put the pipe in my locker and wash two of my shirts. I then took the tram and light rail to Istanbul’s old city walls and the Chora Church. I had some trouble finding the church but got there with some searching. The central part of the church was closed for restoration so I just looked around the hallways and the old mosaics in them. I then went over to the city walls and found that a few sections were open to the public. I climbed one section, which had the most dangerous set of stairs I’ve ever ascended. Each “step” was two inches deep and there were shards of glass on several of them. At the top of the stairs I was up on the walls and then I walked on the wall to a tower which gave me a better view of the area. Even way out there, I still couldn’t see the end of Istanbul. When I came down from the walls, which meant going down those stairs, I walked around the neighborhood a little before heading back to the light rail station. There were no other tourists out there and I wonder if it was weird for the locals to see someone like me walking around. I took the light rail and tram all the way back to the hostel and did some miscellaneous things there. That night I walked from the hostel back up to Taksim Square. The square seemed even more crowded and chaotic than when I had visited during the previous day. I spent some time taking it all in, and then made the walk back to the hostel to end the day.
The next day not much happened in the morning. I was in the new town the whole time and I ran into some Jehovah’s Witnesses in Gezi Park, but their English wasn’t very good (and my knowledge of JW theology is limited) so I couldn’t have much of a conversation with them. For lunch I decided to eat at the Shake Shack. Although it’s an American company, there are no Shake Shacks where I live, so I had never been to one before. The milkshake was good, but the burger and fries seemed no better than others that I had eaten. I came down the hill and crossed the Galata Bridge back to the old town. There had been some indecision in my mind about what to do in the afternoon, but at the ferry dock I saw that one of the firms offering a two hour ferry cruise up the Bosporus Strait was about to leave, so I bought a ticket and got on board. I stood out on the deck as the shipped cruised north for an hour and then turned around. The boat passed under the two bridges linking the European and Asian sides of Istanbul and the whole time it never left the city limits. Istanbul has the distinction of being on two continents and it covers almost the entire length of the Bosporus Strait. It was an overcast day and I remember that around the point when the ship turned back towards the old city of Istanbul I saw flares descending from the clouds in the distance. I have no idea why. Also I saw a massive new mosque being constructed on the Asia side of the city. When the ferry got back to the old town I got off and searched for a ferry to take me to the Asia side of Istanbul. As it turned out, the ferry I had just gotten off of was reverting to its normal route, which would take it to the Asia side, so I got back on the same boat and rode it over to Asia. I spent about two hours on the Asia side, though there wasn’t much going on over there. It seemed mostly residential and I’m told that a lot of people live on the Asia side of Istanbul and then commute across to the Europe side for work. However, I did technically go to Asia, so I can check a continent off the bucket list. The sun had gone down when I boarded the ferry back to the Europe side, so I got to see nighttime Istanbul from out in the water. Nothing else notable happened that day, but at that point I had seen and done everything that I wanted to.
The next day I just had a few hours in the morning before I had to leave for the airport. My backpack was packed and I left it at the hostel while I went out to go shopping for a cheap umbrella. The weather forecast called for rain in Madrid, the city I was flying to, so I figured it would be a good idea to get an umbrella in a place like Istanbul where they cost less. With some looking around, I found and bought a small umbrella. I also found shops selling the most random stuff, like a store entirely dedicated to gun holsters. Istanbul strikes me as one of those places where you can buy just about anything if you know where to look. On the way back to the hostel I stopped at the Spice Market and used my last few lira to buy some more dried mango slices as a snack. The tram and metro ride to the airport took an hour, and when it was time to board the plane there was a bus that took me and other people out to the plane. It was time to leave Istanbul, the great metropolis of 15 or so million people. I was flying to Madrid, to start of a few weeks in Spain and the final leg of the journey.