Istanbul wrapup

Posted by jswt | Posted in General, Turkey - Istanbul | Posted on 28-02-2011


It’s actually a couple months later, and I realized I never really wrapped up Istanbul… there was an amazing cooking class and spice market tour:

And just more endless wandering, dinners with friends, turkish baths, sahleps, antiquing, parties, shisha lounging, and memory making:

Doubt I need to say it, but Istanbul was very very much worth the trip, and I’d recommend it highly…


Posted by jswt | Posted in Turkey - Istanbul | Posted on 21-02-2011


So I’ve now been in Istanbul for a week, and I think I’m settling into the pace of things now…

The first few days were a little overwhelming – jetlag, my first time in a muslim country, and by far the biggest city I’ve ever been to. For sake of comparison, Vancouver city is 500,000 relaxed, yuppity people (2.1 million of you include the entire Metro Vancouver region which reaches from the North Shore to White Rock, and extends all the way out to Langley and Maple Ridge). London is 8 million polite, bland British types. Istanbul is 16 million people in a seething frenzied interwoven melee with a hint of potential anarchy around the bend.

It’s one of those places that at first I felt out of rhythm – I was bumping into people, the constant barrage of vendors were locking me in (“My friend!”), and I couldn’t understand how everyone wasn’t simply dead from traffic accidents the way they would barrel forth into hurtling traffic… But from the cacophony, stems a beat that has ebbed and flowed for so long that it’s synched.

The city itself had been described to me repeatedly as “east meets west”, which it literally is, since the Bosphorous river flows through the middle of the city and splits it with a continental divide with a European side on the east, and an Asian side to the West. It isn’t simply a geographic fact though – it’s also a metaphor for the way the city is erupting from the past and embracing the future: Ancient ruins covered in knockoff cell phone shops, burkas beside bikinis, pullcarts dragracing Porches… The echos of the past are literally shouting out from all sides via shisha lounges, hammams and endless tea.

The population of Turkey is 98% muslim, and of course I was anticipating with North American naievete extremists sporting bombs strapped to their chests declaring holy wars, but as has been the theme of the trip, it wasn’t at all what I expected. Turkey’s a very moderate country, and religions here live alongside eachother. 5 times a day you hear the call to prayer sing out from the mosques all across the city. There aren’t really any burkas here – you see a lot of great scarves worn as head-dresses, there’s been a few fully robed women, but most of the ladies are just hanging out. I really do fail to see the reasoning for holy wars in this case – Christians and Muslims are both praying to someone they believe received word from on high, and aside from a few trivialities such as whether they should pray 5 times a day vs 3 times a day at mealtime, or whether it should be God or Allah, in the grand scheme of all evolutionary possibilities and potential religious concepts that mankind could have dreamed up, there’s really more overlap to celebrate than differences to fight over… But, lets just put whoever’s imaginary friend could be up the other’s imaginary friend aside…

We’re staying a couple blocks from the Grand Bazaar – the world’s largest covered market, with over 60 streets within and 4000+ vendors. Between that and the spice market a couple kilometers beyond, there’s a twisting maze of shops and vendors selling everything you could imagine, and more. The vendors are politely agressive, as seems common here, and negotiation for everything is a must – they are actually offended if you pay their initial asking price.

We had a couple days off which we spent wandering the big sights – the palace district, the Blue Mosque, and the cistern…

We also visited our first turkish bath (hammam) which was unexpectedly different from the turkish baths in Budapest. Rather than soaking in pools, here it’s more of a dry bath, where you lie on a heated stone slab, and then get scrubbed, soaped, washed and massaged/beaten up by a giant turkish man to whom cries of pain are taken as encouragement. It was really quite fantastic, and was actually high on my list of things to experience while here, so I’m looking forward to seeing a few others around town that aren’t quite so touristy.

The food has been some of the best I’ve ever experienced, for an offensively low price (once you learn to skip past the tourist pulls). The cuisine is kebab-centric, simple, tasty, and spicy (but not in a damn-thats-hot way, but mmmm-that-tastes-delicious way). I was a little concerned how my stomach would adjust to the local cuisine, but so far I’ve been eating far better than I usually do while travelling – it’s also one of the first times where it’s cheaper to eat out than get groceries for the hotel room.

So after a week, the traffic seems to flow naturally – just walk out when’s safe, and don’t get hit. The vendors are being kept at bay with a wave of the hand and a polite/uninterested “just looking”. The doorman at the kebab place up the street is welcoming me back to “my restaurant” when I go by for dinner “like mommy makes” (had she been turkish with an alchemist’s agility with mysterious spices).

It’s not overwhelming anymore…
It just feels incredibly authentic and real.
Really happy to have another couple weeks here to dig in even further.