Saturday, November 26, 2011

Lovin' the 'Bul

We absolutely love Istanbul. Its more a collection of little things that we like so much about this city, rather than any one thing specifically.

Lets start at the beginning. Half of Istanbul lies in Asia, and the other in Europe. The cliche says it really is, physically (we wouldn't say culturally, though), where East meets West. For us though, Istanbul is a warm welcome back into Western life. First, at the airport, the quintessentially Western Starbucks chain greeted us at the gate. We don't even go to Starbucks at home, really (unless Airica was working). But it was decorated so festively, the red cups all had little ice skaters on them, and they were playing Christmas music. And... a cup of hot chocolate was more than our entire day's food cost in Sri Lanka. Yup, we were in the West. We swallowed hard at the price list and what it meant for us and our 12 days in Turkey. But we didn't buy anything-not at those prices.

Jonathan literally danced out of the airport. He had felt his first gust of cold November air in between the airport doors. He yelped in delight. Chilly, Autumn weather! People glanced over and pulled their winter coats tighter around themselves. I practically went into shock. What was this feeling, and why was I still wearing a t-shirt and flip flops? We went back in and borrowed some of Starbucks' cozy chairs to pull on our socks and shoes and I rummaged through my bag for the fleece I had, until this point had been wondering why I was carrying around for the last year. And my scarf. And my raincoat. Jonathan started dancing again.

I was not expecting it to be cold in Istanbul. Especially because in the Bahrain airport, where we had just had an overnight layover (uggh) had big screens advertising 'Weather in the Middle East' and claimed (repeatedly-all night long) that Istanbul was a 22 degrees Celsius. The high was 29 degrees and the low 21 the screen told us! I'm glad wherever they got their information from wasn't in charge of air traffic control. It was maybe 10 degrees, during the day, if the sun was out. And I'm not complaining. After we went out on a mini shiver-induced shopping spree and bought toques and mittens at the Grand Bazaar, even I found the crisp, fall days to be delightful.

Istanbul is a mosaic. There are so many wonderful things to see. For us, the city offers endless strolls through neighbourhoods as contrasting as ancient cobble-stoned streets jumbled around a mosque commissioned by a long ago sultan, to modern, fashionable, rooftop restaurants. Everywhere we look, there is something else to explore.

We spent a happy few hours strolling through the Grand Bazaar, bantering with the shopkeepers. 'Grand' being no understatement. I read that this is the largest covered bazaar in the world! Its a labyrinthine of over 4000 shops and kilometers of lanes. It contains mosques, banks, restaurants and workshops-its a city all on its own. Its fascinating- and a tourist trap extraordinaire: 'Come here! I can help you spend your money!' was a common greeting. It was all in good fun. I was in especially high spirits because many of the scarves that they had on offer were the exact same ones I had bought in China and Nepal- only I had paid less than a quarter of the price! If that doesn't put you in a good mood, I don't know what will. Next on my list was the Spice Market... or the Sampling Market, if you're me. 'Come! Try our Turkish Delight! Best in Turkey.' Free samples? Sounds like a free lunch to me! I like bazaars.

We are staying in a less touristy part of town, a neighbourhood called Beyoglu. This has more to do with the fact that we knew nothing about Istanbul when we booked the cheapest room we could find on the internet from Sri Lanka. It has turned out to be fantastic, and one of the things we like best about Istanbul. We are right around the corner from cheap, local food (chicken kebab = YUM), there aren't any pesky touts, shoe shiners, or roving men who have a brother/friend/cousin who would just looove to show us their carpet shop which rover could conveniently lead us to- they're free after all... not to buy, just to talk, of course, and have tea, conversation is free.... blah blah blah, you get the idea.

Even more wonderful about Beyoglu, is the wide walking street that runs for a couple kilometres down the city's main shopping district. At night, the lively promenade is strung with festive, white Christmas lights, there are chestnuts roasting on street-side carts, the air is fresh and nippy, and everyone is out for their evening stroll. Its a wonderfully atmospheric place for a stroll. Its the first time its felt like the holiday season for us in a long time.

Thus far, the Turks have been very friendly and helpful. When we first arrived in Istanbul and couldn't find our hostel, we asked a lady for directions. She didn't know, so she ran up to her office and printed us out a map of how to get there!

We love watching the fishermen on the big, main bridge that connects the old town to the upper town. The bridge, probably a few hundred metres long, is crammed with fishermen donning massive poles and reeling in seemingly endless amounts of small silver fish. All day, everyday, thousands of these fish are being reeled in constantly... how are there always so many fish- and why are they all so stupid? (J: Because they're fish.)

Another great thing about Istanbul- not once has anyone attempted to run us over while we were crossing the street! There are designated sidewalks to walk on and only once was there a motorbike driving on the sidewalk (he must have come from the Asian side of town). People don't huff and puff when they have to make change for larger bills, and there even appears that restaurants have some noticeable semblance to hygiene- some cooks even wear gloves when touching your food! Istanbul is home to countless stray cats, but they are all furry and fat and they don't even look as they have rabies! This is all good, in our books.

And now, the not-so-good. I have only two complaints. First, is that everyone and their brother smokes here. For non-smokers, it is pretty gross. Second, is the exorbitant visa fee that the Turkish Government charges Canadians. For Canadians, a standard Turkish visa is $60. Its not the fee itself that flew me into an angry frenzy at the visa counter- its the fact that Canadians, and Canadians ALONE pay THREE times the visa fee that any other nationality in the entire world pays. And no one seems to know why. Or if they do, its some sot of National secret grudge, and they certainly weren't telling me the reason. Most other countries, if they require a visa, pay $20. The next closest to what we Canadians pay is poor Moldova, who pay $30. And then its just us, hanging out at $60. Why? Don't even say 'reciprocity' because I will bite your head off and then go into the five point lecture that I originally had in mind for a blog I was going to write solely on this issue- I was that annoyed about it at the time. Consider yourself lucky that I've spared you from my rant. If you really want to get me going some time- just ask me about Turkish visa reciprocity when I get home-boy do I have a spiel prepared. Anyways, I like Turkey so much that I don't want to get all revved up again over $120 right now. Its a drop in the bucket at this point. Hey! There's something else that's not reciprocal. We love Turkey, but apparently they don't love us. Who would have thought? Not everyone loves Canadians.

p.s: It is against the law in Turkey to 'insult Turkish-ness.' Vague....

p.p.s: In case you were wondering, Lao doesn't like Canadians either, but I probably already complained about that.


Parentals said...

you missed Australia in your country list....
AND..... I'm not the only one who wants you to do 'travel nights' and even if it's just Grandma, Justine and I.... you have to do them!

Anonymous said...

Hi J and K,
Your blog is as good as ever and you have given us much enjoyment hearing all about Turkey and especially Istanbul. Reaching Europe brings you a lot loser to the UK and especially to Ireland
where the door is open and the going rate is cheap !
Best wishes as your wonderful trip is getting near the end.