After spending 10 days in Istanbul I have struggled with working out what to write for my first post from Turkey. My time here has been mostly spent running the gamut of other tourists as I work my way through the list of ‘must see’ places, snapping the obligatory photos and trying to get my head around life in Turkey. I decided to break Istanbul down into a couple of separate posts of both activity reports and general observations. Here is part 1 of … a few to come!
The flight from Kuala Lumpur to Instabul was a long overnight one (12 hours) on Turkish Airlines. I was pleasantly surprised with how nice they were to fly. Free newspapers as you board. Bright cabins, with turqoise highlights throughout, and a goodies bag full of little treats to make the journey very pleasant. A blanket, pillow, slippers and a little toiletries kit were waiting on the seat when I sat down. Little steamy hot cloths handed out before meals. Decent, tasty meals. And a good entertainment system. I’d say that they definitely give Air NZ a run for their money these days…and that was just in economy class! (And yes, after flying on budget airlines for so long, these little things went a long way to making me a happy customer!)
The flight arrived at 4.45am – which gave me quite a few hours to kill before I could check in to the apartment at 11.30. It was raining when my flight arrived and I had no idea what the area was like around the apartment, so I opted to kill the time in the comfort of the airport. I found a quiet corner in Starbucks (of all places!), listened to nice ambient Turkish music, and made use of the free Wifi. Oh the irony of being in a country famous for its coffee and spending my first hours in a Starbucks – somewhere that I loathe when at home.
When it was time to leave the airport, I jumped on the train, transferred to a tram, and was met at the tram station by my apartment host. I was surprised at how smoothly it all went. I was feeling a bit vulnerable at that stage without any means of communication if our arrangements to meet didn’t pan out so was happy it all went so well. As we walked the 500m to the apartment, he pointed out his recommended restaurants, places of historical interest and his favourite organic grocer.
I had booked the apartment through AirBnB, a great website where people world-wide list their B&B’s, apartments and rooms in shared apartments. It often ends up cheaper than other accommodation and you can end up staying in residential area rather than the designated tourist areas, giving a more realistic (and cheaper) introduction to local life. I intended to stay in Istanbul for 10 days so thought that the apartment would be a good option for a more comfortable stay. Unfortunately, I could only stay here for 4 days as it was booked after that, but I figured that would buy me time to sort out somewhere else for the remainder of my time.
The apartment was small but comfortable and in a reasonably quiet neighbourhood in Fatih, just 3 km from Sultanahmet, the main area of attractions. Like everywhere in Istanbul, the narrow streets were steep, and the residential areas consist of 3-4 story narrow apartment buildings.
I looked out the apartment window and discovered there was a large mosque in the backyard. Bugger – I knew that was going to be loud during the calls to prayers, 5 times a day and I wasn’t wrong. There were a couple of speakers pointing right into my window and it certainly wasn’t pleasant at 4am!
But as I was to find out, there would be no escaping the mosques in Istanbul (and probably anywhere else in Turkey). I used to think listening to 3 competing mosques in Indonesia was bad – but this was something else again. Because Istanbul is extremely hilly, and I was based up high on a hill, I could literally hear what must have been a 100 or more mosques all at once, echoing across the valley It was 3 minutes of absolute sound bedlam.
The first thing I did, was to go to the small grocer across the road and stock up on some goodies for the fridge. The shop had a wide range of fresh cheeses, pastrami, olives, fruit and veges and, of course, Turkish delight.
The grocer couldn’t speak a word of English, and I walked around the store with Google Translate open on my phone so I could start to learn important words like peynir (cheese), kahve (coffee), ekmek (bread) and pastirma (pastrami).
The grocer kindly sliced off samples every time I studied something to figure out what it was. I tried to tell him I wanted a soft cheese (something spreadable on bread, like a camembert) – and almost ended up with a large packet of butter before I realised our communication error.
And my groceries turned into this:
I headed out in the afternoon to explore the neighbourhood. Turns out I was staying only a few hundred metres from Topkapi Gate, part of the ancient Theodosian stone walls that once surrounded the city.
The original walls from the Constantine era were replaced during the reign of Theodosius in 408AD and were the point of defence of the Eastern Roman Empire and their Ottoman successors. Parts are still well-preserved whilst other parts have been reduced to a pile of rubble due to age and earthquake damage, or removed to make way for the multi-lane highways that cut through.
Istanbul is fascinating in so many ways. There is so much ancient history here that I struggle to get my head around it what is history and what is mythology. (History never was a strong point for me). It’s a fairly conservative Muslim culture where most women are covered from head to toe and wear head scarves to cover their hair. The more conservative women wear full head coverings; a few don’t wear any head covering at all.
Yet Istanbul is modern in it’s own way: people of all ages are glued to their cell phones as they walk along the street and eat at streetside restaurants (argh!), boy racers gun in at ridiculous speeds on the narrow, windy cobblestone streets, and I just read that a quarter of people over the age of 18 have a YouTube account . You may have read the recent news about how the government has blocked both YouTube and Twitter in Turkey – a reactionary measure due to ministers taking exception to comments and uploaded videos that didn’t place them in a favourable light. The solution – just ban the entire YouTube and Twitter sites. Incredible, really, but the Turks are resourceful, and just use the technology to get around the bans. Nothing that a VPN can’t handle…
I love, love, love the public transport system here. Trams, trains, subways, buses and ferries are frequent and conveniently linked up. You can buy an ‘Istanbulkart’ transport card that you top up with cash and use it on any of the transport systems. All rides are basically the same price regardless of the distance traveled: 1.95 Turkish Lira (or just over NZ $1) – and if you use the card, it’s discounted to 1.75 tl. Each subsequent connecting journey within the hour is further discounted. Auckland could learn a lot from the Turkish system!
Kahve or Cay?
Turkey is supposedly famous for its Turkish coffee (kahve, pronounced kah-vay) – but one has to wonder why when they drink so much tea (cay, pronounced chai). As a coffee lover, I get a bit frustrated with trying to get a decent cup of coffee here. The thick Turkish coffee is usually served in very small espresso cups, with the bottom ¼ being the thick sludge of fine coffee grinds. I’m used to that style of coffee in Indonesia – but at least they serve it in bigger cups. The only way to get a decent sized cup of coffee here is to order Nescafe – and that just doesn’t count as coffee in my books.
But tea is the obvious drink of choice here. Turkish tea is served in small curvaceous glasses, never with milk, and usually with a cube of sugar or 3 on the side and a tiny spoon for stirring. The Turks drink it all day long. Groups of men site on low squat street-side tables on the side of the street, sipping tea and sharing the gossip. Men walk around the streets and markets carrying trays of tea to deliver to other shop owners and their customers. Empty glasses are often seen left on the side of the road, on window ledges, and in doorways. I’m not sure but I get the impression that ownership of the tea glasses must be fairly communal – I have no idea how they would otherwise keep track of all their tea cups.
Locals normally drink Turkish tea – just a normal black tea as far as I can tell (not being a sophisticated tea drinker myself). However, they also offer elma cay (apple tea) which I love. The good stuff tastes a bit like hot apple juice – slightly sweetish and very apple flavoured. As I understand it, this is mostly drunk by tourists rather than locals and is often served in carpet shops as both shop owner and potential customer settle in for long negotiations. I have sat through two Turkish sale pitches just for the free tea. (And to learn about the carpet making indusry, of course). But that’s another story for another day.
It’s a man’s world
One thing that stood out to me almost immediately that it’s a man’s world in this city. I often see large congregations of men sitting around. In the mornings, hundreds of them walk past on their way to the tram or to work. In the afternoon, the tea garden/restaurants are full of men sitting around with a cup of tea.
Where are the women? I really don’t have an answer on this. They are around, but just not in proportionate numbers. It’s as if they are mostly hidden away. You very rarely see women working in stores, restaurants or the market stalls – that seems to be men’s work. I read a funny blog post once about watching older, scarf-covered women holding up G-string panties while haggling with the men running the market stalls.
After writing that paragraph, I decided to Google women in Turkey and came up with the following interesting tidbits:
- Less than 28% of Turkish women are in the work force. A significant percentage have been forced to quit by or otherwise prevented from working. Women’s employment has decreased since 2000
- 28% of Turkish women were married before the age of 18
- 60% of Turkish women cover their hair. (2006)
- One out of 5 women is illiterate. Half of girls between 15-19 years are neither in the workforce nor in the education system.
I was stared at a lot as I walked around the apartment neighbourhood. Tourists and blond women are rare in this area and at times, it made me feel a bit uncomfortable. Not in an unsafe kind of way, but in a ‘Have I got two heads?’ kind of way. They weren’t friendly stares, ending with a nod or a smile. They were just… stares. After walking around for hours, I often though it would be nice to enjoy the afternoon sun with a hot apple tea, in a little tea garden. But the crowds of men and the lack of women made me feel uncomfortable: were women not allowed in these places? Or were they just not encouraged to go? Or did they have better things to do? I just didn’t quite understand the culture enough to feel OK about going in. I later found out that some tea gardens and restaurants have areas put aside for women and family groups. You are not obliged to sit there, but it’s supposed to make you feel more comfortable. Likewise when booking bus and ferry tickets online, each taken seat is marked with the gender of the person who booked that seat. This allows women travelling on their own to sit with another female.
When I later moved out of the apartment to a more touristy area part of Istanbul, I felt a bit more relaxed, and wasn’t stared at so much. And I stopped worrying about it so much. But I’d still like to know where the women go? And why don’t they ever look happy?
Sometimes when I’m about and about, I make it my mission to make some of the older, dour-faced women crack a smile. They just don’t smile as a rule and I’m not sure why. Is it shyness? Or a feeling that there is nothing to smile about? I give them a nod of acknowledgement and big fat grin – and if I get a smile, or even just a nod back, I notch that up as success. But successes are rare.
But here is something to put a smile on my face. Spring has sprung in Istanbul, and it’s tulip season. Gorgeous beds of tulips are found everywhere throughout the city. Now who wouldn’t smile at that?
That’s enough for now… stay tuned for the next episode: “Lisa does Istanbul” as I hit up the main sites and attractions.