Istanbul – A Humming Metropolis

Friday 30th May 2014

I wake up at 4:30am on the dot.  It takes me a minute to realise that no, someone does not have a microphone in my ear bellowing “Praise Allah” but somehow the prayers of those in the nearby mosque/s have been amplified and beamed across the whole city.  The sound is something between singing and chanting. Going to sleep during this ritual is impossible so I lay wide awake and listen. I later learn that some of my roommates sleep with earplugs to avoid the disturbance but to me it somehow doesn’t feel right, like I am deliberately shutting out an integral part of Turkish culture. It seems the praying lasts nearly an hour. I soon learn that this happens five times a day, with the last session at 11pm.
I was stoked to hear when I booked this hostel that breakfast is included. I think I expected to walk in to a buffet of hash browns, baked beans and sausages. Idiot. What I discover is about 15 ready made plates. Each one has three slices of cucumber, two slices of tomato, an egg that I really hope is hard boiled, a wedge of cheese, two olives, some very dribbly cherry jam and a bread bin that we can help ourselves to. Probably the most bizarre breakfast I have ever seen. I’m into it although dubious about how long it will keep me going for.
I have two days to explore Istanbul before I join my Topdeck tour group. I know my first day with them covers off all the main tourist sites: the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace, the Grand Bazaar and the Roman Hippodrome (or so it said in the trip notes!). I’m keen to know what else I should be seeing so I ask the guy on the front desk for some guidance. He suggests heading across the Galata Bridge to the Galata Tower and exploring Taksim including the famous Taksim Square, a popular place for demonstrations and protests, particularly well known for the Taksim Square Massacre in 1977 (right wing killing left wing supporters).
Armed with only very basic map that shows the tram line, about three major roads and the tourist destinations I set out on foot. I’m staying in Tourist Central and it is only about two minutes to the Sultanahmet Square which is the capital of Tourist Central.
As I raise my iPad (cringe, but whatever) to take a snap of the the beautiful blue mosque a voice nearby offers to take it for me. I turn and see a shortish Turkish man, not bad looking, in his early 30s. I readily agree and in that instant my whole day changes. Meet Kamil; an Istanbul local who designs jeans in his family business. He is extremely friendly, but not in the pushy, I-want-your-money way that many of the others seem. I meet him soon after 9am and he is to become my personal tour guide until after 5pm. I would estimate the we probably walked about 20km seeing the sights of Istanbul.
After showing me where I can find a proper map he directed me to the Basilica Cistern, underground Roman ruins where the legend of Medusa lies. Two of the many pillars have Medusa’s head carved in stone. It was ten lira entry, and despite the fact Kamil knew I might be up to half an hour he offered to wait outside for me. My Roman history is rather terrible and while I didn’t really understand the fuss about what I was looking at I did discover a great little side business going on down there where people dress up as sultans and have their picture taken. I watched a few groups go through the process. Feeling like a bit of a twat but unable to deny my childhood love of dress-ups I sidle up for my go.
Let’s just say the two photographs are considered ten euro well spent, although at the same time an absolute gimmicky tourist rip off. After that my new friend walks me through the gardens of Topkapi Palace. It is a beautiful sunny day and I try and stimulate all of my senses; shutting my eyes and soaking up the chirping of new birds, the sun on my skin and, quite literally, smelling the roses.
We stop for a rest near the water and Kamil explains that we are currently exploring the European side of Istanbul but our view across the water is the Asian part of Istanbul as we are in the only city in the world which straddles two continents.
We continue on foot to the famous Spice Markets. I’m not in the market for any produce but thoroughly enjoy the new sights and smells. Think tiny little spice pyramids of every hue. I appreciate the fact that I am with Kamil and am hassled much less by pushy spice marketmen. Kamil tells me that this is where the memorable scene in the latest Bond movie, Skyfall, is filmed; the one where Daniel Craig is doing a motorbike chase through all the stalls. Bit awesome.
We stop at a shop where Kamil’s friend works. We are offered some tea, of which I now enthusiastically accept. Next we venture across the Galata Bridge to the Galata Tower then down the long street to Taksim Square. This is where I see all the western shops; Adidas, French Connection, Northface etc. Kamil seems happy to wait inside as I pop into H&M which has only just opened in Australia. After snapping an obligatory tourist shot in the square Kamil confirms that yes, I do drink beer and we stop in what is an equivalent to an Australian 7/11 to purchase some at his recommendation. We drink them at a park near Taksim Square, grateful for the generous shade of an oak tree. Our chat is mostly that of Turkish culture and customs. I am particularly interested in the role of women in Islam and grill him about the females in his family, relationships between men and women and the relevance of conservative dress.
His English is jolted but I always understand at least the gist of what he is saying.
Kamil teaches me some basic Turkish words:

  • Tesekkur ederim (“te sugar ededim”) – thank you
  • Lutfen – please
  • “Tamam” -ok
  • Su – water
  • Tavsan (“tavshun”) – rabbit
  • Serefe (“she de fe”) – cheers
  • “Goonaiden” – good morning
  • “Goolay goolay” – goodbye

Eventually we move on to what is to be our final (and quite unexpected) destination, the Intercontinental Hotel. Without batting an eyelid Kamil walks confidently through the revolving doors to the lift. We are whisked to the top floor and now I know why we are here. The view is breathtaking. Unfortunately only a camera with panoramic capability could have attempted justice at the sight. I settle for a mediocre shot of Taksim Square which at least captures the beauty of urban Istanbul. Kamil sits in the nearly empty restaurant. I am conscious that every bit of my appearance, right down to my extremely fashionable backpack (at least I’m not wearing the bumbag – sorry Mum!) screams budget traveller and that one night in this hotel probably costs as much as my 11 day Topdeck tour so I remain standing, hoping that this is a strong enough indicator that I am keen to move on. The wait staff come and ask if we want to see the menu. That settles it.
I know we are quite far away from my hostel but I am adamant that I want to walk back as opposed to taking the tram (I did say budget traveller remember). Plus, Kamil had not made so much as a squeak of an offer to pay for water or beers consumed earlier claiming that he left his wallet at home. Not that I minded getting them for him because he really was doing me a great service, but I am only so hospitable/naive. I am grateful at this point that (and this is super strange for me) I have not become hungry throughout the day, as I feel like lunch may have been an awkward interchange.
We start the return journey in what am sure is the wrong direction. As we turn into streets less and less populated I start to get a little concerned. I explain to Kamil that I feel like we are going the wrong way, but also that my innate sense of direction is terrible. He asks if trust him. I confirm in the affirmative. We keep walking. The streets narrow and rain sets in.
Just when I am seriously thinking I might be being wilfully abducted and am weighing up my bailing options we round a corner to see the Galata Bridge. I’m hoping my “Ah the bridge!” conveyed more yay-we’re-nearly-home and less thank-Christ-I’m-still-alive.
I thank Kamil for our day and say my goodbyes. I am happy to have made a friend and offer my tour guide services if ever he comes to Melbourne. He tells me I should give him 20 lira and my hand in marriage.
Ok, slight exaggeration, but he definitely told me I should be giving him 20 lira. My first reaction was shock and then sadness. If I’m honest with myself, I think this possibility had been itching at the corners of my consciousness all day, especially since the “I forgot my wallet” episode.
Still I feel like I have been deceived and stick to my guns. I told him he should have told me at the start of they day if he expected me to pay for his friendship. I think he is equally baffled at my reaction. We have a whole lot of awkward conversation. End result = we aren’t going to be Facebook friends and I still have my 20 lira.
I walk dejectedly back to the hostel feeling sad (and a bit guilty?) about the way a fantastic day ended.
That night I meet two lovely young Dutch girls that have just moved into our dorm and we plan to have breakfast together the next morning.

My breakfast
My breakfast
The picture taken by Kamil  (me outside the Blue Mosque) just after he spotted me
The picture taken by Kamil (me outside the Blue Mosque) just after he spotted me
Romilly ze Sultan...ess?
Romilly ze Sultan…ess?
Before entering the Topkapi Palace grounds
Before entering the Topkapi Palace grounds
Think I forgot to mention how may stray cats and dogs roam the city.  HEAPS.
Think I forgot to mention how may stray cats and dogs roam the city. HEAPS.
Kamil and me drinking tea at his friends shop in the spice markets
Kamil and me drinking tea at his friends shop in the spice markets
A spice market man with a sense of humour
A spice market man with a sense of humour
My view form the top of the Intercontinental Hotel
My view form the top of the Intercontinental Hotel
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