Fighting a double-whammy of long days and jetlag, this morning was painfully slow to get going. But, we knew we had to get up early enough for breakfast and to check out. This was officially our second Turkish breakfast, and apart from it being exponentially better than the one on Pegasus flight, it was quite similar – thick slices of bread, jam, cheese, olives, processed meat, cucumber and tomatoes. And tea. Always tea.
For the first time, we were faced with real rain this morning. Fortunately, we heard it just as we were about to leave the hotel, so rather than getting wet, we sat inside and watched TV for a while waiting for the front to pass. It was only a short walk to the next hotel, but it was certainly long enough for us (and our bags) become wet.
Even though we were much more prepared than yesterday, we had a very hard time finding our hotel, Bereket Apartments. The difficulty was partly due to the fact that the address on Booking.com was not for the apartments, but rather the convenience store that the owner (and his brother) also own (and work). Once we found the brother, he called Ali (the owner) and we were escorted to the apartments. Ali is a funny man – his enthusiasm is hard to match.
The apartment is down a small alley, and has seven small studio apartments. We were on the top floor, which I thought was awesome, until I walked to the top of the homemade staircase that looked a few steps away from collapse – though it creaked and groaned, it stayed structural for the entirety of our visit.
We continued the sightseeing after a quick break in the apartment, this morning visiting the Basilica Cistern. It is a giant underground water tank (put simply) that was built during Roman times, and was left to ruin later in history by people who preferred fresh irrigation. We walked past the entrance several times yesterday, but had no idea what it was at the time. Today, the queue was unmistakable that it was a popular attraction. Not missing any opportunity, there were several hawkers selling umbrellas and ponchos to us poor tourists standing and waiting in the rain. If we didn’t both have rain coats, I probably would have succumbed rather than soaking like a chump.
It took a while to make it inside, but once we finally walked downstairs, we were treated to views of looked like an enormous waterlogged cellar. Inside, hundreds of large marble columns support a beautiful brick roof. It seemed immensely large and complicated. Fun trivia fact, they actually filmed a James Bond movie down here – From Russia with Love, though I can confirm after flicking through the movie that you are forgiven if you didn’t recognise it. Photos are the best I could do without a tripod – because who wants to travel with a tripod.
It was interesting that the columns weren’t uniform. They believe that they were reclaimed from other buildings for the construction. Amongst the hundreds of plain columns and footings, there are also two very famous columns, featuring a Medusa base. No one seems to know exactly where they came from (or why they are here). Also, the unusual orientation are just guesses, believing that the head must be upside down to protect from her gaze (and the other being sideways because it was the dimensions).
Despite it being massively crowded outside, it wasn’t too bad inside, which is probably due to the area people could spread out over. Plus, I’m sure having a crowd outside the non-descript toilet-block like building that is the entrance helps funnel more tourists inside. Yes, I really am that sceptical.
Always the business opportunists, inside there was a small photo studio taking portraits of people dressed in traditional Turkish clothes. Since we’d already done similar portraits in China and Mongolia (though sadly missed Kyrgyzstan), we thought it was necessary to get some done here in Turkey, too. It was €5 ($7.5) for a single photo, so we put our gear down and got changed. There was no cheer or enthusiasm during this shoot, just a finely practised routine that they carried out. I tried my hardest to get them to use my camera and lens rather than the cheaper camera/lens they were using (D200 with 18-55), but I was wasting my breath. In all, they took about 30 photographs – and to his credit, more than half were in focus, too. I know I’m fussy, but the shots were pretty rubbish. He was using off camera flash, but pointed directly at us for most of the shots (complete with red eyes). He occasionally bounced off a nearby column to get some usable light/shots. He tried his hardest to upsell the entire shoot, but I was hesitant about even purchasing this single shot. Of course they wouldn’t sell me the digital file (though, it doesn’t affect them as they only sell the single size image). It was a final blow when finally receiving the printed image and realising just how low quality their printing was, too. But, they didn’t care and just wanted to get me out of their way as quick as they could so they could get started on their next shoot.
One other thing we noticed were the fish (carp) that were living in these dark waters. I’m not sure why they are here (they’re certainly not meant to live in water that people drink), but they were big, and there were hundreds of them.
We had noticed it to a degree yesterday, but today we were acutely aware of the hawkers. Everywhere. It all starts the same way, “Hello my friend, where are you from?” Instinctively I turn around to reply to them, but it is pointless, they are just trying to get you to visit their shop or restaurant. I hate having to be rude, but if you stopped to be polite to every spruiker, it would take you hours to cross the old city.
But, while waiting for Risa, I was caught by one such gentleman who kept trying to invite us to his carpet shop for some tea. I was upfront with him that we were backpackers, unemployed (and technically homeless) and that we had no money for carpet (and no home to put one in). Undeterred, we were ushered inside, given some Turkish apple tea and shown an assortment of rugs and given information about what makes them special. They were all very beautiful, and if we had a house to put one in, I might have considered purchasing one. He got very antsy when I asked about the prices for the sake of future knowledge, stating that the prices now won’t be relevant in a few years time as carpets appreciate in value. Seems hard to believe, but I’m no carpet expert. I know that the prices given were far from their best, but even as a starting point, they were above and beyond what I would spend on decoration for the floor – I guess maybe I won’t be purchasing one in the future when we finally have a stable house…
Risa had read in a Japanese travel site/magazine/book/something about ‘the best kebab in Istanbul’. It sounded a little hard to believe, but since it wasn’t that far from where we were, we went for lunch. Unsurprisingly, it was orientated towards tourists, and I didn’t see a single Turkish customer in the time that we were there, which may not have been due to the quality, but due to the price. We were starving, but decided to go for a smallish plate to share, rather than enough to fulfil. An interesting dish on the menu actually was served in sealed terracotta pots that they crack open (with an oversized knife/sword) and you eat the slowly cooked goodness that has slowly cooked inside. I really don’t understand why the pot has to be destroyed instead of being reused. It seems a little pointless/wasteful. But… we didn’t order that. We did order a mixed plate, with several different styles of meat and a giant (inflated) piece of bread to accompany the selection of breads that came with our meat. It was very good and the small amount of meat we received was delicious, but I’ve been to several other ‘good’ Turkish restaurants in Australia that nearly charge the same, so I can’t say I was blown away by ‘the best kebab in Istanbul’. At least they threw in a ‘free’ baklava desert (which was probably included in the 15TL service fee).
After lunch it had cleared up (and was now starting to get hot and steamy), so we went for a walk to the Grand Bazaar. We’d briefly walked past the entrance a few times, but actually entering the building is something else. It is like a maze, with thousands of stalls housed in the beautiful old building. Navigating it was made even more difficult due to the repetition of shops. The shops seemed to be orientated towards tourists (no big surprise) with dozens of shops selling the same types of items in the same areas – novelty/counterfeit t-shirts, scarves, decorations, rugs, jewellery, soaps etc.
I thought that it might be an interesting experience to walk around and just have a look at what was for sale, but we had to deal with the same hawkers vying for your attention. Since there wasn’t really much that I wanted to buy (other than some sneakers and a watch), we got tired of walking around aimlessly. The marketplace eventually spills out into the streets surrounding and it was out in these streets that it started to feel more like a local market. The products were cheaper, the vendors were more relaxed and there were fewer tourists.
Once I tried to concentrate on finding a new watch (to replace the fake Casio I bought in Seoul) I found out just how big the ‘genuine fake’ watch scene is. I was looking at a few in a window, and had a young boy come up to me and ask if I wanted to see their full range. I agreed as I didn’t expect it to become a long walk through the market, out into the streets, down a few narrow alleys, and into a shop with no markings (nor visible entrance). Inside this concealed and somewhat clandestine establishment, there were hundreds of different watches from dozens of different manufacturers. The quality of the fakes were incredible, however I wasn’t able to find one that I wanted enough to initiate a barter.
Risa was also on a mission to find a scarf, but even with the hundreds of different scarves on display, she wasn’t able to find one. She eventually found her way to one shop where the shopkeeper took the time to escort her down to their massive underground storeroom. The owner proudly claimed that they supply all the scarves to the markets, which even though there were a lot of scarves, I found that claim hard to believe.
Outside we ran into a man we’d seen walking around the streets earlier, selling mussels from a glass cabinet he had hanging from his chest. Through the help of a younger Turkish man that was having a smoke, we came to learn that this man is the world’s most famous mussel seller, which was typical hawker hyperbole – I wasn’t able to find a single other image of him when I tried searching.
For something to do, we travelled on the tram away from Sultanahmet and across the Golden Horn to Karaköy. The trams are simple enough to catch – purchase a 3TL plastic token which allows you to travel anywhere via tram. With no real plans once we arrived at Karaköy, we ended up just walking back towards where we came from. The sun had set, but it was beautiful looking across the harbour to the old town and all of the beautiful mosques with their slender minarets.
In a state of complete ignorance, I noticed that one of the shoe shiners who had just packed up his setup and was walking in front of us dropped his brush. Without even thinking, I picked it up and return it to him. The man thanks me, and thanks me over and over. He tells me he wants to clean my shoes, though I tell him it is pointless (as they are hiking boots) but before I know it he is seated with a brush in his hand. I pull my feet away, but he continues to insist and thank me. The other man has now started to clean Risa’s hiking shoes, too.
It’s right about now that the stories about how he has to come to Istanbul to work to support his family and he requests money. Of course I try to refuse, but he caused such a scene and took me by surprise that take pity on the man and decide to give a token donation of a few coins. However, again, still off guard and stunned, he coerced me into paying 8TL ($4) for the pleasure of his services. Risa was so shocked and upset that I paid the man that she walked off not talking to me. I felt so cheated and had my trust truly violated. I have never had someone behave like that before. The one sole consolation was it was a cheap lesson to learn about trusting scammers here and that I need to be tougher.
The bridge is filled with fishermen catching little fish. Part of the reason for making our way out here was to sample of the famous fish sandwiches that are sold direct from the fishermen who are catching the fish on their boats (we later learnt that the fish we were eating aren’t actually from here, but are caught elsewhere). It was an interesting scene, and they were cheap, but was essentially an entire fish with only innards and head and tail removed. There were too many bones for me to be able to eat it enjoyably.
I’d eaten a few bites when a small girl, covered in filth and wearing tatty clothes, comes up to me as we are eating. I didn’t want to give money, so I gesture my fish sandwich, which she grabs without a second thought and runs off towards where her mum is sitting. Seems I haven’t learnt much about being tougher as I was ‘mugged’ again less than 15 minutes from the last time. I didn’t mind that much, as she clearly needed it more than I did, but I was just annoyed at myself for being taken advantage of so easily that I punished myself by not buying another one and spending the rest of the evening being hungry instead.
Next to the bridge is the New Mosque, which still looks old and splendid. We wanted to go inside to visit, but I hadn’t dressed for the occasion and in my shorts there was little I could other than wait in the inner courtyard while Risa borrowed a head scarf and went inside the mosque.
Even though it was now 10PM, there was still lots of activity in the streets as we walked to our hostel. As we walk past Aya Sofiya at 10:30PM the enormous loudspeakers blast out a call to prayer, and we see loads of men (and a few women) making their way through the gates and into the mosque. It’s such a beautiful building and I’m looking forward to visiting inside it tomorrow – I just need to remember to wear long pants.
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