Istanbul and Some News
For massive cities like Istanbul, I like to visit all the really big touristy sights first then chill out a little and explore the rest of the city in my remaining days.
My first destination was the Blue Mosque and Sultanahmet Square. As one of the most famous mosques in the world, I was looking forward to something really amazing. Unfortunately, the Blue Mosque is currently undergoing extensive renovations, and the main dome on the inside (the interesting part) was totally obscured by scaffolding and printed tarps.
While it is still a historic building from the early 17th century and an incredible feat of architecture, it was a disappointing visit and many others from the hostel I stayed at felt the same.
The Blue Mosque lies on one side of Sultanahmet Square which also contains the Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace, a Greek twisted bronze statue, an Egyptian obelisk, and other beautiful buildings. Between these attractions is a gorgeous park-like square with green grass, palm trees, and fountains.
Built from 532 to 537 AD, this Byzantine Christian cathedral was the worlds largest building for nearly a thousand years after its completion. It frankly boggles my mind that they could have dreamed up, engineered, and constructed such an incredible monument.
For me, walking in that ancient space both filled me with awe and made me chuckle. I wonder what the architects of 537 AD would have made of the crowds of tourists that visit the monument every day. Would they be overjoyed at the influence of their work, or would they weep at the tourists wearing floppy sun hats and snapping selfies?
I had heard that there’s a part of the Hagia Sophia where the Sultans tombs reside that many tourists don’t know to visit. After many confused consultations with the museum map, I realized that the area I sought was connected to the Hagia Sophia but only accessible from outside the main building. In fact, to find the tombs, one must exit the complex, walk to a different side from the entrance and exit, and go through an entrance marked only by a small plaque and a security scanner.
Stepping through the scanner, I moved from the bustling Sultanahmet Square into a quiet courtyard rimmed by squat, domed buildings. At the first, I sat beside a mosaic and removed my sandals as per the custom. Walking into the viewing area, I felt enveloped by the meld of bright tiles on every side and by the absorbing green velvet that carpeted everything below eye level.
My favorite tomb was the tomb of the princes. A line of tiny coffins lay inside the smallest and most sparsely decorated tomb. The inside of the dome, instead of blasting you with all the colors in the Holli festival, the ceiling was merely painted plaster displaying some simple embellishments in mute greens and grays. Additionally, a portion of the ceiling shaped like a slice of pie was painted in a totally different manner, clashing aggressively with the order of the majority.
Istanbul has a lot of bazaars. The spice bazaar, the Egyptian bazaar, the grand bazaar, the Kings bazaar, the Ephesus bazaar, the list goes on. Additionally, the streets of this city often feel bazaar; cheap touristy crap is sold in groups of city blocks surrounding any point of interest or transportation for tourists.
Every large city in Europe has these crap vendors, but in Istanbul, I felt like it was particularly disingenuous to the culture of the city. I think I felt this way because the big attractions of Istanbul certainly are attractive. They’re fascinating, but they’re more like jewelry; worn on the outside only to augment the beauty within. The wonders of Sultanahmet Square were relics from an Istanbul long gone, and to connect with what’s to see there today, one must spend time walking its streets and sifting out the jewelry, the parasites, and the city.
When I’m in a city for a few days, I usually establish a couple of restaurants near my lodging where I can go for cheap and convenient food. Just beside my hostel in Istanbul, there was a whole maze of restaurants and cafes, so I had an abundance of choices. I happened to walk into a charming dessert and coffee shop called Evvela. I ended up returning four more times for their Masi, a cold dessert with strawberries, cake, cream, and hot melted chocolate on top served in a jar. I also came back because it was the perfect place to chill out for a couple hours and do some work online or read a book.
The owner of this little family-run shop was very kind and liked to chat whenever possible. He spoke English faster than Mexicans speak Spanish. By the third time I’d come around, he started giving me a discounted rate for the Mazi and during one visit, I helped his niece’s friend practice her English for a couple hours, thereby learning a little more about the people of Istanbul and their favorite parts of the city.
The owner’s parting gift to me when I came for the last time was a traditional coffee in the style of the people of Eastern Turkey in which pistachio nuts are ground as finely as the coffee and brewed with the grounds to make a drink so thick and rich, one could imagine scooping it out of the cup like ice cream.
A City Divided
For the geographically challenged, Istanbul straddles the Bosphorus: a straight that connects the Black Sea and the Mediterranean Sea and marks the divide between Europe and Asia. The European side of the city is further bisected by the Golden Horn inlet.
One telling example of the differences between the European side and the Asian side is that the Asian side wasn’t even featured on the map of tourist destinations given out by the hostel I stayed in. All of the major “points of interest” in the city are on the European side, and what few attractions exist on the Asian side are always noted primarily for their location across the Bosphorus.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that there is not anything to see across the water. There is one main pedestrian street through the Kadikoy district and a surrounding web of small street which bustles with shops, cafes, and restaurants. The first time I journeyed across, I wandered around until I found a coffee shop that I had read was the place to have a really good Turkish coffee. As the internet never lies, their coffee was excellent and I spent an hour or two people watching and writing.
The primary reason anybody says to visit the Asian side is to experience the overall ambiance of the place and see the less touristed parts of Istanbul. I did appreciate the slight change in architectural styles and decoration as well as not feeling like a sardine in a can, but I wasn’t very impressed. It reminded me of Varna, Bulgaria; just not a whole lot there.
However, I went back a couple of days later with two friends from the hostel and my experience was entirely different. At this point, I must thank the creator of the Dog On Pillow statue. After getting a coffee at the same cafe, we were trying to decide in which direction to explore, when one of my companions found this touching statue under google maps’ list of attractions. It had two five star reviews, so clearly we had to find it.
We followed the navigation through a part of the neighborhood that I had not seen before. There was an abundance of happy, intentional street art among the usual scratchy graffiti. Restaurants and cafes still lined the streets, but the shops full of Gucci knockoffs and little Turkish flags on sticks were gone. The people on the street were, as a whole, Turkish.
We found the Dog On Pillow statue at the far end of this neighborhood. There it sat, faithful yet stolid. A dog. On a pillow. It had clearly been created with a loving hand, as they had even included the ear tag which marks ownership. As we visited the statue, a dog (who knows if it was a stray or just out and about) that looked quite a lot like the one in the statue was chilling nearby, receiving pats from passerby’s.
Having witnessed this unique artwork we continued down the street to watch a beautiful, clear sunset over the water from the bank of the Bosphorus. Two trips to the same place gave me two entirely different impressions of it. Maybe it was the streets I visited, the people I went with, or the state of mind I was in, but it makes me consider the inconsistency with which people, even the same person, can experience a place.
The City of Cats
Upon arriving in Istanbul, it would be an easy mistake to make to think that the city has a cat problem. The little creatures are everywhere; by opening your eyes to nearly any street is to see between one and seven felines inspecting trash cans, working the tourists, or simply lounging about.
However, that assumption is quite incorrect. Istanbul simply has a cat abundance. The people of Istanbul love their cats. Once while I was eating dinner outside a little Turkish restaurant, two cats began to fight something furious. Immediately, three or four restaurant and shop owners were there, breaking up the clawing, hissing ball of teeth and fur. On many occasions, I saw people setting food and water out for the city’s cats and dogs. Furthermore, the vast majority of the cats looked quite healthy. One vegan restaurant I visited with friends from the hostel had a “catshier” that guarded the card machine and another hospitality cat that did its best to be a lap ornament while we tried to eat our food.
Istanbul’s cats aren’t just free-riders, either. While walking through the streets of the Asian side, it occurred to me that I had seen nary a single pigeon since I had arrived. This is a truly remarkable reality, as every other large European city I have been to was simply swarming with the flying rats. But in Istanbul, one could say that problem had been licked.
As always, the best memories I ride away from the city with are those that I made with impromptu friends. The hostel I stayed at was a little bit hippie themed, which seems to be the best environment for promoting social interaction among the guests. Via the rooftop lounge area, I ended up having a few excellent nights out trying some classic Anatolian cuisine, vegan kebab, and Turkish beer.
I spent one day across the river with a Chinese woman, perusing the many art galleries and bookstores of the Galata and Beskitas neighborhoods. It was interesting to hear an insider’s perspective on the state of Chinese government, culture, and wellbeing. We also stopped into a hotel in which both Attaturk, the founding father of Turkey, and Agatha Christie had stayed for an extended period of time. And as if having those two names wasn’t enough to make the beautiful hotel famous, there is the mystery of Agatha Christie’s disappearance. According to the tale, she went missing from her hotel for eleven days before she was found checking into another hotel miles away in the countryside. Her car had been crashed not far away, and she had no recollection of the previous eleven days.
When writing about my experiences in Europe’s cities I often find myself at a dilemma. On one hand, most of the best experiences I have and which I hold dear in my memories of the place are related to the people I met during my stay. Getting to know their unique and beautiful stories and experiencing a city through the lens of hastily formed friendships is truly the essence of travel. After having these experiences, when I sit down to write about my time with them, the urge is to share this with my readers as much if not more than I share my observations of local cultures and customs. However, here I must check myself because this is not a diary, but a public account of my travels. Since those people haven’t chosen to be featured here, I feel it would be a breach of privacy to share their stories which make up such an integral part of my travel experience. Furthermore, I couldn’t possibly do justice to the sum of my experience that is getting to know my fellow travelers without the time to write multiple books. I only mention this now because as a reader, I can see how cats and vegan kebab might not seem worth the trip across the world. Those things aren’t worth the trip, but the people and their stories are.
As anyone who watches the news will know, when President Donald Trump decided to pull U.S. troops out of Kurdish held territory in Northern Syria, Turkish forces began an offensive against those Kurds who considered us their ally. The bodies piled up and tensions built among the global community as the Syrian army moved in defense of its Kurdish population. Stalled by heavier fighting than expected but with massive gains in territory, the Turkish government accepted a five day ceasefire to allow Kurdish forces time to retreat and evacuate from the so-called safe zone; a 273 by 20 mile swath of Syria along the length of the Turkish border in which the Turkish government plans to settle two million Syrian refugees currently living in Turkey.
So far, this offensive has displaced over 100,000 Syrian Kurds and in the words of an Amnesty International report on Turkish war crimes, “Turkish military forces and their allies have displayed an utterly callous disregard for civilian lives, launching unlawful deadly attacks in residential areas that have killed and injured civilians… including attacks on a home, a bakery, and a school”. Despised even by the people who our government helped with this move, America’s leaders have once again bloodied their hands in countries where we had no right to influence.
As a whole, Turkish people are known for being politically versed, passionate, and opinionated. As soon as the shit hit the fan in the news, every time I introduced myself, there was a palpable recoil, even unconcealed disgust at the word “American”. I’ve since started pretending I’m from Canada, but even then, hotel managers and police checkpoints have a right to my passport, and I’m becoming more concerned about outrage based heckling or violence in addition to the increased chances of a terrorist attack in Turkey’s major cities. Perhaps the worst case (and most likely) scenario would be for me to end up in Turkish jail because some police officer didn’t like the way my visa was stamped or where I parked my bicycle. Political leverage is not a role I want to play.
From the outset of this journey, I allowed for the idea that perhaps when I fly to South East Asia, I could sell my bicycle and continue in a more conventional backpacking manner. Now, that time has come. As one could imagine, there have been times along this journey when I could have quite happily hurled its steel frame into the sea. However, every time I had this urge, I would remember all of the great experiences I’d had thus far which would have been unattainable when traveling at the speed of bus or plane.
My upcoming route also had a role in keeping me on the bike; exploring Turkey is particularly well suited to bicycle touring with fascinating countryside, good roads, and open spaces. I had hoped to make it as far as Georgia before circling back to the Cappadocia region of Turkey. Now though, the pressure is on to pick up my skirts and hurry out of Turkey, so I am selling the bicycle in Izmir and taking trains across Turkey to Tbilisi, Georgia.
Parting with my trusty steed is not a decision based only on the uncomfortable aspects of bicycle touring, but rather the experiential aspects. Over the last five months, I have developed a style of traveling that works very well for me. I’m confident in my choices and actions in accordance with the patterns and travel style I have developed. However, bicycle touring is also limiting in the range of experiences accessible. Most of my time goes towards moving my butt across the country I’m in, and when there’s a destination a couple hundred miles off of my general path, it’s not always worth the effort to get there. As much mobility as the bicycle affords me, it is also somewhat of an anchor when seeking certain areas of travel experience.
S.E. Asia with its humid climate, poor road system, and rugged terrain is particularly well suited to backpacking and so backpacking I shall be. I am glad that I am ending my bicycle journey here and now because it has been the perfect final leg and an excellent note to end on.