Istanbul Day One – Bishkek to Istanbul

There is little joy in waking at 3:15AM for an international flight, especially after going to bed in a 12-bed dormitory two-and-a-half hours earlier. The sole comfort was seeing young people queuing around a kebab shop as we drove through town towards the airport – I’m glad some things are universal. I think I am going to miss the techno music at all hours of the day that plays here in Kyrgyzstan. The taxi ride this morning featured pumped up versions of Gotye’s ‘Somebody That I Used To Know’ among other electrified pop hits.

The taxi was a rip off, too. Our driver charged us 500s ($10) – which is about what the hostel suggested, even though we only paid 400s from the airport. But when paying him, I only had 200s notes and he conveniently didn’t have any change… It was tempting to just give him the 470s that I did have to test his bluff, but I was tired and not in the mood to cause an argument over $2.

Then there was the airport… We passed through one set of security scans then joined an unorganised queue to get to the airline check-in counter. There is a man standing with a manifest of this morning’s flights, crossing names off his list as they pass through his screening. Again, I’m not sure if I was feeling more aggravated about this due to a lack of sleep, but it felt like a maddeningly pointless bottleneck. There was also another security scan, then we were ‘queued’ at the airline counter. The attendant’s frustration at us not having printed our tickets was clearly visible. And then there was yet another security scan – this time we had to remove shoes, too…

We bought another quick couple of gifts from a souvenir shop, with all the prices listed in American dollars (not uncommon). However, trying to pay with credit card we had to pay Kyrgyz som, and we had to pay at their independently calculated exchange rate of 60s per USD, not the approximately 50s that reflects actual currency exchange rates, and used by virtually everyone else. Of course, it was pointless bringing this up with the girl working there.

And the final straw was the departure area. We were scheduled to depart at 5:30, so when it was 5:20 and there still wasn’t any information, I think we had a right to feel anxious for some information. Considering that there were two only international departures at this time of the morning, it was surprising that there was no information. Actually, when we finally got information on the display boards, it was incorrect. Fortunately there are only three gates, so it was easy enough to keep an eye on.

Overall, it was a shitty experience to be forming our last memory of a country that we otherwise thoroughly loved.

And, to further rub it in, the flight was delayed one hour after we’d already boarded and were seated in the plane on the tarmac. It made me look back and laugh at all the pushing and queue jumping that was going on to get through gate.

Things didn’t improve all that much once we were airborne. As we flew with a Turkish budget airlines, Pegasus, there were no free perks – such as an emergency aisle seat for those of us like me who are endowed with longer legs. Instead I spent the five-hour journey with my knees firmly pressed into the seat in front.

It seemed that it was the first time on a airplane for a lot of the younger people on this flight. The teenager seated next to me was trying to call someone as the planes engines were ramping up at the start of the take-off. I had to point to the ‘no phones’ sign on the seat in front of him – to his credit, he did say good-bye and hang up his call without giving me attitude. The plane was still ascending when a group of young boys started climbing out over each other and wondering up and down the aisle trying to go to the bathroom. Amazingly, every time one of them would be out of his seat walking around, there wasn’t a flight attendant to be found – but I was told off for having my cup holder down before the seat belt light was extinguished…

As it was quite an early flight, I thought it would be worth pre-purchasing a breakfast. I still think that it was a solid idea, however the breakfast certainly wasn’t worth paying money for. At least it was only $10 each, not the $20 that it would have likely cost on Jetstar… To their credit, it did resemble the advertising photographs. It was a few pieces of cheese, some horrible processed meat, some olives, bread and some tomatoes – a fairly typical Turkish breakfast as we were about to learn. To make things worse, water wasn’t one of the included drinks. Instead, I had to order a cup of complimentary tea (and just not put the tea bag into the water). Oh, and my final complaint about the flight… I’ve never been in such a hot and uncomfortable flight before. I’m sure I’m being overly cynical, but I think it is to make more money by selling water (as it is not complimentary). I do wonder if business executives sit around and think of dastardly ways of extracting every dollar they can from passengers, but my resolve was iron clad.

Then we arrived at a grey and cloudy Sabin Gokcen Airport, which I only learnt was the budget airport way outside of town. Arriving at the immigration hall, there was mass queue jumping and pushing – it wasn’t even discrete. Some families were just pushing past people in the queue, ducking under the ropes, and walking straight to the front of the queue. A few people slipped through, which only encouraged more people to try their luck. They didn’t go through unnoticed, but it wasn’t until officials started yelling at them and blocking their path did anything happen. It was shocking, and I’ve never seen anything like it before. We finally got to the front of the queue and Risa passed straight through, which was amazing after all the complications with everyone before us. Me though… I’d completely forgotten that I had to get a visa for Turkey… It was so long ago that I read about the logistics, and I had confused not needing one, with being able to get it on arrival.

So, it was back out of the queue down the hall to the visa office, where a visa could be purchased for the grand sum of $70US, or €50. Of course, they didn’t accept cards. Possibly for this very reason, 100m further down the hall there were two ATMs, so I withdrew a few hundred New Turkish Lira and returned to purchase my visa. It seems that I misunderstood when she told me the price, as it was either $70US or €50 – not the equivalent in Lira. It was amazing that the ATM was able to dispense any of the three currencies, so I decided to pay with Euro, as it was about $0.75 cheaper – suckers. I was in disbelief that an official government agency was unwilling to accept payment in their own damn currency! Had I remembered to organise an eVisa before entering, I could have saved more than 50%. I tried joking with the lady if they had free WiFI so I could get online and organise an eVisa instead – the joke was lost on her. I gave her €50, she gave me a little sticker for my passport, which I likely wouldn’t have received if I had of organised an eVisa – the sticker was totally worth the extra money.

In the mean time, more planes had arrived, and the immigration queue was even longer. I put on some music and did my best to be ignorant of the pushing, yelling and the horrible overpowering smell of the sweaty humans I was crushed inside of.

My expensive visa sticker got me through immigration and into the baggage claim area. I found Risa there waiting with her bags, but mine were nowhere to be seen. I was beginning to feel like someone was trying to make me have a bad day. After some panic, a quick mental stocktake of what I had (and what I didn’t) and a long conversation with the airline, more bags came out of the carrousel, and there was my crappy green backpack.

Customs was a bit of a joke, we put our bags on the scanning machines, because we’re well trained, only to have a customs official tell us to take it off and walk to the exit, un-scanned. It was shocking as someone used to the draconian customs in Australia to be allowed into the country without even a check – and to see other people carrying what looked like big bags of meat straight through!

Following the information in Lonely Planet, we caught a bus from the airport to central Istanbul (Taksim). Ordinarily we would have caught public transport to the hotel from here, but it was drizzling, we were tired and we had a very limited idea of where we were going, so we decided to try a taxi.

Walking off the bus we tried our best not to fall like stunned flies into the trap of the waiting taxi drivers – and there were plenty of waiting taxi drivers. I don’t trust them. We walked past them and looked for one a little further away, one that might be a regular Istanbul taxi, that regular non-tourist folk caught. The prices in LP were out of date, so it was no use, but the lady at the information booth in the airport suggested that it would cost 20-25TL ($10-$12). We had one guy asking us for a taxi, but we kept shrugging him off. He then said he’s not like the rest, and isn’t trying to rip off tourists as he uses the metre. I guess we’ll never know, but the taxi ride ended up being 40TL ($20), and the worst part, he ended up dropping us a very long way from where we needed to go due to traffic – much further than we would have walked if we caught a tram. Who knows, he could have been legit, but still I hate taxis.

We booked a room in one of the cheapest guesthouses in Sultanahmet, Castle Hostel. They were in the process of renovating so it might not stay the cheapest for long. There was nothing fancy about it, but it was clean and convenient enough for the price. However, we only booked for one night because Risa was paranoid about being stuck in a dud hotel for three nights. The plan was to inspect it and then if it met her approval, book for the other two nights. Would have been perfect if the hostel wasn’t fully booked tomorrow night! So, we’ll have to search for a new place and move tomorrow.

20140605_RCH_2171 20140605_RCH_2176 20140605_RCH_2179We went to a nearby kebab restaurant that was quite renowned. Upstairs it was filed with tourists, but downstairs there were a few locals eating there, too. To be honest, I was a little underwhelmed. It was nice, and fresh, but it was a little dry (nothing like the Australian kebabs that are full of sauce/flavour/juice). At least it was cheaper than Australia.

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With the weather being a little overcast/drizzly, we decided to do some indoor things, so walked to Topkapi Palace, which was just around the corner, as everything is in Sultanahmet (which is why we stayed here). We walked through a few small markets.

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It was also our first opportunity to see the amazing mosques that Istanbul is famous for. It’s always weird seeing something so famous, and something you’ve seen depicted so many times in movies and magazines for the first time with your own eyes. Lets just say it didn’t disappoint!

It came as a bit of a shock how expensive entry was to the palace. An all area access to the palace was 45TL ($23) each, plus another 20TL ($10) for an audio guide for us to share. Sadly, if you don’t hire an audio guide (or pay for a real guide), you’ll have very little understanding of what is going on as there is very little explanations inside the palace.

I have to admit that my Ottoman knowledge was pretty limited. I knew that they were powerful, but didn’t quite realise just how far that power stretched and for how long. I especially didn’t realise how significant they were with regards to Islam – but more on that later.

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After walking through the gates, with all their intricate Arabic script, we were inside some simple gardens. It wasn’t that much to look at from the outside, but entering our first building, we came to understand what made the palace so special. The two domed rooms, used for mediation and negotiations, were beautifully decorated with thousands of intricate tiles.

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We paid an extra 15TL each to visit the harem, which isn’t quite what you might think – it literally means private or family quarters. Sure, there was plenty of space for all of the sultan’s concubines, too. The buildings and hallways in this section of the palace gave a much better idea of how the ruling party lived. Through the audio guide we were able to learn more about how their family life worked (and about how important the sultan’s mother was).

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Their private chambers (bedrooms) were immense cavernous tiled rooms with giant domed ceilings. The windows were also beautifully decorated. They weren’t painted like stained glass windows are in churches, rather they were tiled much in the same way the interior of the room was. No expense was spared in the name of opulence – and why would there be, they were some of the richest and most powerful men in the world.

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We went from room to room, each one as over the top as the next. Not that we tried, but it would have difficult to choose a favourite. It was definitely worth spending the little extra to visit this area.

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Oddly, the common areas and hallways had little of the extravagance that the private chambers had. They were simple and stark white, save for architectural features and Arabic script.

We thought that the un-furnished private chambers were the very definition of luxury. We were shocked when we saw a collection of some of the furniture that was now on display in the Treasure room. They were valuable beyond my comprehension. I have never seen so much gold and gemstones in my life. I always thought that the treasures that were depicted in cartoons like Aladdin were an exaggeration, but I’m not sure that’s the case. Everything was gilded in gold and then studded with as many rubies, emeralds and diamonds as there was space for. And it wasn’t just the ceremonial items, like swords and chairs, but also the mundane like water bottles. But, you’ll have to take my word for it (or search for official photos) as they were very strict about not being able to take photographs.

There were three large rooms of treasure on display – some of it plunder, some of it gifts from foreign nations but loads of it was ceremonial and created by the royal family. Even in a room full of treasures far more splendid than anything I had ever seen, there was one piece that was truly phenomenal and eclipsed all – the Topkapi Diamond. This diamond is so large that it is impossible to believe that it is real. To be honest, other than the sheer unbelievable size of the thing, it wasn’t exceptional, but damn it was big!

It was surprising how lax the security was. Compared to the slightly hyperactive protection of the Crown Jewels in London, it looked (on the surface) like a shopping mall. I’d love to know if there have been any serious robbery attempts. There was quite a visible security presence, but more than a few of them were preoccupied with the phones, either messaging or playing games.

There is also an enormous collection of Islamic relics, including things that are thought to have been possessions of the prophet Mohamed. I hadn’t really considered Turkey to be so important with the Islamic religion, so I was continually surprised seeing things that in my mind seemed out of place – like they should be somewhere more Islamic. For us it was interesting, but not knowing much about the religion (and not really wanting to), they were little more than historic relics. Again, there was a strict no photography policy, so if you’re interested, you’ll have to search for images yourself.

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The palace was enormous and we still had large areas that we hadn’t visited yet. It is only logical, but the newer sections at the rear of the palace were quite a different style. While they appeared to be much more European, they hadn’t lost any of the lavish decorations that adorned the other areas. We had seen most of the palace by the time they started closing up and herding us tourists out. It felt so early, but only because the sun sets so late here that it confuses my sense of time.

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We caught the end of a free cultural performance, including a few minutes of some hypnotically smooth whirling Sufi dancers, and another group that were telling the story of a shepherd trying to win the permission for a man’s daughter.

The street sellers didn’t miss an opportunity, with several kids walking around selling bottles of water and snack foods.

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We felt like we’d already had quite an expensive day (in reality, we hadn’t, but compared to our time in Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia and China, we had) so we tried to keep dinner cheap and simple. It’s very convenient staying in Sultanahmet for the accessibility to many of the major attractions of Istanbul, but it also a bit of a tourist location, so prices and quality are matched to suit. We wondered aimlessly for a short while. A giant sign for Felafel was enough to complete the decision process. It was an alright meal (the felafel was tasty), but the mousaka and the other dish were average. But, at least it wasn’t expensive.

Sadly, the night didn’t end when we returned to the hotel. We still had to try and organise flights and a rental car which required a few phone calls back to my bank in Australia to resolve (Air Pegasus was flagged as an untrusted site company…). Even after all the discomfort of flying with Pegasus this morning, we were booking with them again for the flight to Izmir in a few days time – it just goes to show how much of a tight-arse I am.

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