End of the Turkey leg (INCLUDES VIDEO)

Trip Start Oct 21, 2006
Trip End Mar 21, 2008

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Flag of Turkey  ,
Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Spanning Europe and Asia, Istanbul is one of history's greatest cities. For continued global importance, perhaps only Rome can rival the political, strategic and cultural significance of the city variously known as Byzantine, Constantinople and now Istanbul. For centuries it was the largest city in the world, a seat of power for the Romans and, of course, the centre of the Ottoman Empire. No longer officially the capital of Turkey, Istanbul remains the cultural and economic heart of the country and no visit to this region could leave it off the itinerary.

Our bus stops at the massive multi-storeyed bus station located ten kilometres west of the city centre. Turkey is a country where trains have not really made an impact. Indeed, they barely exist outside of Istanbul, which only has a train station to connect it with Europe. As usual, confusion reigns when we get off the bus. The ticket guy in Canakkale had assured us that our ticket includes a minibus that would collect us at the bus station and drop us anywhere we wanted to go, in this case Sultanahmet, the tourist centre of Istanbul. The bus station is rather chaotic though and there are dozens of minibuses scooting around.

"Sultanahmet?" we ask a few guys who look like minibus drivers but don't speak English. They respond in Turkish but without any kind of affirmation that would give us confidence. One guy ushers us into his vehicle.

"Sultanahmet?" we ask again.

He respond with a lengthy answer that ends in "Sultanahmet", the closest we've got to a 'yes'. When we are loaded into the bus, a friendly local who speaks English assures us this vehicle will take us to Sultanahmet.

"I will make sure of it," he says. Once we are moving, he checks with the driver and reports back to us.

"No, this bus does not go to Sultanahmet," he says, as if this was the first mention of such an idea. "You must get off and then catch a train." I almost start to launch into a rant about how we were promised delivery to Sultanahmet but then we decide it is not worth it.

The Sultanahmet area, which we do successfully reach by train, is quite stunning and correspondingly touristy. The first two things we see as we climb off the train are the Blue Mosque and the Haya Sofia, two of the world's greatest religious buildings. Just past the Haya Sofia is the sprawling decadence of Topkapi Palace and running alongside the Blue Mosque is the Hippodrome, complete with 5000 year old Egyptian obelisk. There can't be many places in the world that have so many incredible sights within such a small area.

Of more immediate concern, with our heavy packs on, is finding Sultanahmet's cluster of hostels and cheap hotels. This area is also particularly touristy, as you would imagine a hotel district to be, but very attractive. It is all cobblestoned streets, carpet shops, sidewalk cafes and restaurants and their associated touts standing outside to lure you in. If it weren't for the carpet shops you would think you were in Europe.

We check into our hostel, 'The Big Apple'. Istanbul is busy, it is August after all, and everywhere is full. This means that our sixteen-bed dorm is at full capacity. Somehow we have managed to avoid dorms almost entirely since Australia, over eight months ago. In Japan we had people to stay with and the dorm concept hasn't really caught on in India or Nepal. Everywhere else we have stayed at hostels but they were so cheap that it hardly cost any more to take a private room. Turkey, and Istanbul in particular, is just so expensive that a private room is not really an option. Even a bunk in a sixteen-bed dorm costs ten euros.

Some dorms can be great - comfy beds, a good way to meet friendly fellow travellers and share tips and stories while saving money. And sometimes they can be terrible - smelly clothes everywhere, inconsiderate roommates who burst in at 4 A.M., switch the light on and start yelling and banging around, long waits for the one communal bathroom, and dodgy-looking characters passing in and out unchecked. And you never know which kind you are going to get until it's too late.

The Big Apple is somewhere in the middle of this continuum: a few late-night larrikins and underwear on the floor but not the worst, I guess. Jane likes the top bunk, a carry-over from childhood, but I can't stand it. All your luggage, clothes, toiletries etc are down on the floor and you have no space for anything up the top. It is also a real pain in the arse to climb up and down, especially when you need to go for a pee in the middle of the night. It is dark, of course, you have to climb down in your bare feet on the narrow metal rungs that always stop about half a metre from the floor, leaving you the choice of standing on the mattress or possibly the face of the person on the bottom bunk, or jumping to the ground and twisting your ankle on a stray backpack or guidebook.

Then you have the snorers. Completely oblivious to their own disruptive noises, they sleep soundly while everyone else is kept awake. In the morning the snorer wakes up refreshed and unaware of the glares from his roommates. My feeling is that if you know that you are a snorer - and most snorers know - you shouldn't sleep in a dorm. It sounds harsh but otherwise you are just being inconsiderate to everyone else in the room.

Anyway. We spend a couple of leisurely days in Istanbul without doing anything too exciting. Unfortunately, the high cost of travelling here in Turkey has completely blown our budget and we are looking for low cost activities. We are struck by how modern and European Istanbul is. We had imagined a chaotic zoo of traffic and pushy people, a la Cairo or Damascus, but Istanbul is comparatively quiet, civilized and attractive.

In a region of the world with no shortage of bazaars, souqs, khans and other markets, Istanbul's Grand Bazaar stands out. The centuries-old covered market is a labyrinth of alleys and paths, all lined with every Turkish specialty - carpets, leather jackets, more carpets, knock-off brand name clothes, even more carpets, apple tea and, of course, Turkish delight. The merchants are chatty but nowhere near as annoying and hassly as their Egyptian or Syrian counterparts.

Turkish people overall have exceeded our expectations in terms of friendliness and civility and the whole country has surprised us with its natural beauty, infrastructure and frustration-free travel. Sadly the high cost of everything means we cannot spend any longer here. Cheaper pastures await.
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