. (Sorry to random guy if I stole your taxi.)
My first impressions of Istanbul and Turkey are very good. Istanbul is a city divided by continents; half the city is in Asia, the other half Europe and they are divided by the Bosphorus. It is hot when I arrive, and will only get hotter. It is about 30 and that is quite cool for this time of year. I am loving it instantly though, the Marmara Sea on my right as we cruise along towards my hostel. It is very expensive here, especially in relation to the prices I have been paying in Asia and Africa the last 6 months: I will have to be careful with my money. I'm staying in an area called Sultanahmet, which is on the European side of the city, and I really enjoy it from the moment I arrive. It is great to be back in Europe after a 10 year hiatus. The single lane streets, all cobblestone. CafÚs with tables that spill out on the road up and down every street and alley. Cats, kittens seem to be everywhere, just wandering around, living in boxes outside shops and stalls. If you want ice cream it is always a stone's throw away no matter where you are, even if you are weak and can't throw a stone very far. Lots of ice cream. Sultanahmet is a touristy area, lots of hostels and hotels, all boasting great views out into the Marmara Sea from their rooftop restaurants. There is a strong Muslim influence in this city, so there are many mosques dominating the skyline of Istanbul
. Calls to prayer ring out loudly at various times during the day. It is pleasant except when it happens at 4:30am, then it's more annoying. Did I mention it is expensive? I walked into a modern coffee shop in Beyoglu and quickly walked out when I saw a SMALL coffee cost 10 Turkish Lira. This is over 6 dollars. This is too much.
My first day here I venture to Beyoglu and accomplish the first task in my <sure to fail> attempt to secure a visa for Syria. I get to the Canadian Embassy and pay 50$ for a "Letter of Recommendation" Yes. 50$. I then spend the rest of the day wandering around Sultanahmet. The Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia are quite astounding and they are quite a treat to look at. Yes, quite a treat indeed. I wander down alleys and find myself at a boardwalk along the Marmara. Kittens are playing in the rocks down by the ocean. Strange. I'm exhausted from the long travel overnight and sleep a good 12 hours with the windows wide open. No mosquitoes to worry about here!
Wednesday: I wake up and take a Turkish breakfast. Tomatoes and cucumbers, cheese. Fresh bread and preserves. Coffee. I make my way to Maška via the tram system and somehow manage to find the Syrian Consulate. I present my "Letter of Recommendation" and ask for a Visa Application
. I am promptly told to take a hike but in a much less flattering way. This does not make sense to me. I have done my homework and I know it is possible to acquire the Visa here. I have followed all the steps that these very people at this very embassy have told me to follow and I am now being told to run along. They refuse to even talk to me. I stand there for a good 30 minutes before they will finally even have another word with me. I finally manage to find out from them that they have changed their policy 10 days ago regarding visas and they are now only available to Residents of Turkey. They ask for my residency card. Somewhere in the last 30 minutes they have forgotten I am Canadian. Aren't people supposed to be helpful at consulates? Rhetorical question. I inform that I do not have a residents card, seeing as how I am clearly not Turkish. They again tell me to get lost and that they can't help. They again leave the window and refuse to talk to me for another 30 minutes. I remain polite and ask if they can please explain what course of action I should next take then? They tell me to go to the border. Another man comes out to talk to me. Eventually they say they can get me a visa here, but it will take one week. That's no good for me since I'm leaving on the weekend but I fill out the form anyways. (Couldn't they have saved everyone the trouble and just let me do this an hour ago?) I digress. They need photocopies of all my documents but they tell me they do not have a photocopier. (Seriously?) I run around and finally find a bank to copy my stuff and take it back and give them all my forms
The rest of this day is spent wandering around more and taking it the sights and sounds and smells of Istanbul. It really is a lovely city and I try not to let this Syrian visa issue detract from my time here. I somehow manage to get a ride in the back of a police car all the way from Sirkeci railway station to Sultanahmet through the park. I had just asked a policeman for directions and 1 minute later after I had walked off following his directions he pulls up beside me and tells me to hop in. They got the sirens going and everything and dropped me right outside the entrance to Basilica Cistern, my next destination. I got more than a few curious looks from others as I descended down the stairs into this underground city. It was pretty interesting seeing all the pillars holding up this ancient underground city. A huge cavernous area with a shallow pool for the ground. Ancient carved pillars holding up the roof as I walked along the boardwalk. A little spooky but pretty interesting. As night fell, I watched whirling dervishes perform at a restaurant as I sat myself down on the roadside between the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia. Another street kebab for dinner. Frustrating day overall!
Thursday: I wake up and have another Turkish breakfast. Tram back to the Syrian Consulate
. I greet them with a friendly smile and wave. The woman looks thoroughly annoyed already and I haven't even spoken yet. I ask them if it is possible to pick up the visa on Friday. They say no and I get the silent treatment again. I met a nice couple named David and Kristina with the same problem as me. They are from Sweden and are driving their car from Sweden to South Africa. I talk to them for a while. I finally decide it is now better to just take my chances at the border so it takes me another 45 minutes to get them to cancel my application. Seems like a long time but that was because it took me 44 minutes of standing at the window waiting for someone to come talk to me again. They knew I was there. I was in plain sight, they just chose to sit at their desks instead. Finally they say it is no problem to cancel my application. I thank them for their friendly outgoing personalities and all the relevant and useful information they gave me then leave. Oh yeah, and I "accidentally" left with the pen they gave me today. JOKES ON YOU SYRIAN CONSULATE! I got your pen. HAH! I celebrate this momentus occasion with a random gondola ride across a random park, before finding my way back on the tram and back to Sultanahmet. I spend the afternoon inside the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. These are the two most fantastic and grandiose structures in Istanbul, Turkey, even the world. Quite a wonderful way to spend an afternoon. Before the sun went down I made my way down to Eminonu and got on a romantic sunset cruise of the Bosphorus
. I really missed my better half on this little foray up to the Black Sea. (Hi lil' C!) It was a really nice cruise and at one point I even noticed some dolphins swimming alongside the boat for a minute. After the cruise was over I walked along the pier and had a dinner of freshly caught fish sandwich called Balik Ekmek.
I went down to the sea for a while and stared out at the boats waiting in the harbour.
Friday: Didn't do very much today but I did make it to the Grand Bazaar. This is supposedly one of the largest markets in the world and it was quite fun. I spent a few hours getting lost down the random passageways inside the market. I even found a few good buys, and didn't even have to haggle that hard. I am still waiting for the aggressive carpet merchants I have heard so much about but I haven't come across them yet. The hostel I'm staying in organized a belly dancing night so I attended that. It was great fun and really amazing to watch. It wasn't very hard on the eyes and everyone in the hostel seemed to enjoy it quite a bit.
Saturday: Today is the day I am meeting my new group of people to travel around the Middle East with. I packed up my stuff and chucked it in storage. Then I headed off to ăemberlitaş Hamamı. These are the most famous Turkish Baths in Istanbul so I was excited to go
. It was good fun, I had an entire layer of skin scraped off by a rotund, hairy, balding Turkish man. Lets call him Hakan. Hakan then proceeded to give me a nice massage with way too much soap. The baths themselves were beautiful and they were built back in 1584 so it was really neat to be in such a place and feel the history of the building. The body scrub and massage take place on a huge round marble slab in the centre of a room with a beautiful big domed ceiling and skylights letting the sunlight filter in. It was a wonderful experience. I needed a nice lunch after this so I found a really cheap and tasty donair. Followed that up with my first authentic turkish delight. It was indeed delightful. Around 3pm I saıd goodbye to Tarıq and Volcano at Bahaus and walked to Sirkeši where my new hotel was. Checked in then headed straight back out to the Spice Bazaar. Wonderful smells there and I found some really good and cheap turkish delight. Went back to the hotel and met my group then we had a nice dinner out in Sirkeši.
That pretty much wrapped up my time in Istanbul as we headed off very early the next morning. Lovely place.
Well here I am in Turkey and what a change it is. It is nice to finally be back in a developed country after 6 months of living in still developing countries. The flight was about as decent as it could be for 2:50am in the morning. I realized just as they were scanning my backpack that I had left my swiss army knife in the bag, but they didn't notice it and it wasn't confiscated. I am not sure whether to be happy or concerned about this. I worked my magic again with the check-in counter and managed to secure myself 3 empty seats to myself with extra leg room so I was able to lie down for most of the flight with 3 pillows while others who were not so clever sat crammed together all around me. I had a bit of a struggle at the airport when I was supposed to meet my hostel taxi man at the tourist information desk in the arrival hall, only to discover there were 3 of these desks all within quite a long walk of each other. So I basically had to walk in a circuit between the 3 for a good hour before I finally spotted a lady with a sign for my hotel. It wasn't exactly my name on the paper though, just the hostel, but we left with just me