Turkish delights

Trip Start Feb 21, 2007
Trip End Ongoing

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Thursday, April 19, 2007

I've been spending the last 48 hrs. here in utter and total amazement. Yesterday morning Yumi and I got a whirlwind tour of the city, thanks to a Chinese girl in my room.  She needed a bigger suitcase to take a  giant hookah and carpet home, and we needed souveniers!  Off to the market we go!  We headed to the Spice Market where this insanely crazy in a you're-kind-of-weird-but-I-dont-think-you'll-kill-me sort of way guy now referred to as 'spice boy' kept trying to sell us more and more things (finally got the Saffron, mom!), and just as we were about to leave he sat us down for some apple tea.  So we stayed, and our piles grew.  Eventually we left with a decent deal behind, especially thanks to Helina, who is one heck of a bargainer (she kept saying things like: hey well I'm Turkish, give me Turkish price!!! haha).  Apparently this is common to do in China and she was definitely an expert!!!  Then after more haggling found her a bag and passed through the main market only to get ourselves lost in the Grand Bazaar.  She had us try Ayran, a salty milky sort of yogurt drink (aquired taste I think, not unlike Yak's milk, perhaps?) and gave us a dozen more tips before rushing back to the hostel to catch her shuttle to the airport.

Left in a daze, Yumi and I headed to Aya Sofya at long last!  I have to say this is hands down the pinnacle of my trip - the absolute climax....long have I awaited seeing this in person and just think how lucky locals are to get to gape at this wonder every day????  It was first erected for Justinian and meant to be the largest church in the world.  But thanks to the Ottomans, it was transformed into a mosque, altered as it went, and covered up all the Christian references throughout.  Very little has been recovered except for a couple mosaics as it is ruining the layers beneath as they excavate.  Or they just simply arent' there anymore....  Now it is a museum, vast and spacious (the dome is 56.6 meters high!), and you can see especially on the upper level how the building has suffered over time from its own weight, as well as multiple earthquakes I imagine.  But architecturally it is still an impressive feat for its time, with elaborately painted patterns and tile work, and carved stone. Simply magnificent.  It beats out St. Peter's by far I think.

We also saw the Blue Mosque which is basically a giant room covered in carpet (they sure love their carpets!) with rectangles woven in for each person to have a little section for themselves.  Kind of like if you put a bunch of yoga mats right next to each other and then tried to get anything done.  There are low hanging candelabras everywhere, tons of mosaics and tile work, and a women's section, which thanks to Yumi being Korean, she was able to get some info on that from a passing Korean tour group.  Turns out that at one point during prayer you have to sit on your knees and bow forward multiple times, and well, apparently this gets the guys all distracted, so they have a separate section for the women for that part of prayer.

Today we checked out the Topkapi Palace, dating from the 18th cen., and was a main living place for Sultans until the following century, when they all moved across the Golden Horn estuary to the Dolmabahce Palace.  Topkapi is kind of spread out - surrounded by fort-like walls, but inside full of gardens, stables, side-buildings for the kitchens, servant living quarters, the Sultan's pad/throne area, a building where business took place, and far more.  Now all you can see however (especially thanks to half being under construction and therefore closed - turns out Istanbul is the European city for 2010) is room after room of their spoils and possesssions: Japanese & Chinese porcelain (and also imitation from Iran), tons of medals and HUGE precious gems and pearls on stupid useless things (82 carat diamond, anyone???), and the like.  You get a great, if hazy (ok it was pretty cloudy today) view of the Golden Horn and the Bosphorus - the river separating Europe-Istanbul/Turkey from Asia-Istanbul/Turkey.

Almost forgot!  We also checked out the Basilica Cistern, this giant cavernous below-ground water holder I guess, don't have all the fancy terminology here folks.  It is really cool.  Pretty dark and dank of course, and there isn't even that much water in it now, but it got its water from an aqueduct nearby that came from the hills I believe?  There are tons of columns holding up the roof, two of which have sideways and upside down heads respectively of Medusa.  No one seems to know why they're there, and why they seem to have been purposefully arranged as such, but there you are.  There's also a bunch of huge probably dirt-eating fishes, as well as goldfish and the like swimming all around beneath your feet.  The cistern spreads wide we realized, as upon exiting we discovered that it extended across a couple roads and was even underneath the tourist police building.  Fun fact I guess.

In between, we've come to see that riding a bus/tram in Istanbul is really just a series of near misses... you are constantly just bracing for the thump of a body to go flying by or the inevitable scratching of metal on metal... exciting!!!  We also discovered we got ripped off on dinner the first night, and since have been living off of unlimited bread w/ hostel breakfast and 2 Lira (1 euro roughly) pita wraps.  We constantly have people trying to sell us things (specifically carpets and blearly-eyed hookah pipe guys... uh, pass, but have another hit man, it seems to do you good!), and I laughed out loud at the guy who was honest enough to say, do you need help spending your money???  The guys are relentless as ever, and its only funny b/c when you ignore them, they stop within 5 min usually.  They keep trying to guess where we're from, and often address Yumi w/ Konichiwa (she's not Japanese, people!!!), ask me if I'm Korean, and otherwise assume I'm German or Australian.  I've stopped answering their guesses and let them keep guessing.... hey lady! I can help you! Hello?  Aussie?  Where are you from in Australia?  so I  said, well where are YOU from?  and that stopped the guy for a minute, then he says: uh, I'm from Sydney.... mate! with a big smile.  It was so clear it was a lie for so many reasons we just sat there laughing away...  You have to give them credit for their creativity....in Italy they whistle, bark or try to sing (it's a sad sight), in Greece they make horrible kissing sounds like they just got a wedgie or somehing, but here.... you never know what their approach will be next!  It's great inasmuch as the most tolerable of the Med. countries so far...  but in the end I have about as much use for them as they do for women from what I've seen, so I won't be sorry to head to Germany tomorrow and be (hopefully) ignored for the most part.  Excellent!  I wish I could stay longer to really delve deep into Instanbul and Turkish culture in general (it's a bit touristified here)...  Yumi heads on to Cappadocia, Pammukale and Ephesus before heading home and I'm sorry I already have my plane ticket now, but back west I must go....
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