Warmer Climes

Trip Start Sep 12, 2005
Trip End Dec 12, 2005

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Flag of Turkey  ,
Saturday, October 8, 2005

"Mama Katrin" ensured we packed a lunch for our travels and saw us off at the Rotenburg train station. We are so happy we made the trip back to see her and suggested to her that we meet for winter vacation sometime. She was very excited about that possibility. She was a very thoughtful host and is a very caring person. Hopefully it won't be 10 years before we see her again!

It was only a 20 minute train ride to Hamburg, then we caught the airport bus at the station. We arranged our flight to Istanbul while in Germany as we had heard flights to Turkey were very reasonable and they were - we paid $250 CDN each. The airline was Hamburg International (first time I'd heard of them), a charter company. Martin hates charters because they usually pack as many people in as possible and this flight was no exception - his knees were rubbing on the seat in front of him. Good thing it was only a three hour flight! The plane was full of holiday-goers and Turks returning home to visit family. The man sitting beside me was loud and boisterous and kept hassling the airline attendants. (It was obvious to me even though he wasn't speaking English - things like that are hard to mistake for anything other than what they are.) There was much clapping when we touched down and just as much pushing to exit the plane.

Upon entering Turkey, most foreigners must first purchase a visa (though some countries are exempt). How much you pay varies from country to country, anywhere from $15 - $60 US. Guess who pays the most? Canadians, of course! Obviously, we must soak the Turks when they come to Canada, too. The two older Canadian ladies in line in front of us weren't impressed. They were taking a cruise out of Istanbul and would be spending only one night in Turkey, but still had to purchase the visa!

We had tried to book a place to stay via the Internet about 10 days before we left Germany, but, for some reason, our booking didn't go through and when I tried again, the hotel we were interested in was full. Katrin was very worried that we had left with no accommodation booked, so I managed to book a hostel on the Internet at the Hamburg Airport, for her peace of mind as much as for her own. (I called her to let her know.)

(Computer keyboards in Turkey are even more complicated than German ones. Not only are the "y" and "z" reversed, but there's a "ç" where the period generally is, there's two different "i"s and the commas and possession marks are in different places than usual. So this is taking significantly longer to type!)

Our guidebook provided explicit directions how to get to the area we were staying in, so we strapped on our packs and away we went! Ramadan (or "Ramazan" as it is called here - the Muslim holy month) has just begun here and will last for the next month. People fast from sun up to sundown (that means - strictly speaking - no drinking or smoking either.) As we walked through Sultanahmet Square about 9:30 pm, everyone was indulging in food after having not eaten all day. There were stands selling roasted corn, doner sandwiches, sausages, cotton candy, sticky candy on a stick, popcorn, roasted chestnuts and various refreshments. It was very much a carnival atmosphere - lots of lights, laughter and people everywhere. As we trudged through with our backpacks, it was very difficult to keep our eyes on road in front of us as I kept being distracted by the sights and the noise. All this combined with "Where you from? You need help? I show you!", etc, etc.

Getting directions here is an interesting experience. Most people are very friendly and approachable and, even with limited English, would try to help, but we often found that their directions were never very accurate and we had to stop several times to ask again. Such is what happened our first evening trying to find our hostel. (Apparently, Turks don't like not being able to answer a question or help, so will provide information even if it's incorrect.) We walked in a complete circle around the square before we found it! Stumbling behind us were two Kiwis (John and Shannon) whom we made fast friends with. (Martin could actually remember their names since Jon and Shannon are his brother and sister-in-law.)

Our hostel was a grubby little place on a side street. The first night we ended up in a dorm with five snoring guys because the three-bed room I'd booked wasn't available. (Earplugs aside, I still got up in the middle of the night and went and shook the bunkbeds across the room to try to get the guys to quit snoring. It worked, more or less. Earplugs did nothing for the smell of stinky feet, though!) I also noticed I woke up with a few bites (bedbugs?) so after one additional night sleeping on rock-hard bed with springs poking through, we bailed and found a cleaner and more comfortable place down the block. (The friendly staff and free Internet must have been why the hostel was rated to highly on the hostelworld website. We needn't have booked ahead - there was plenty of room at various places.) The second place we stayed in (I scouted it out before committing ourselves) was newly refurbished, squeaky clean and we had our own bathroom. Worth the extra $15 CDN a night!

There are a lot of young travellers in Istanbul, crowded into hostels in the Sultanahment area. They all have the Lonely Planet bible (guidebook) tucked under their arms. They also love to haunt the rooftop gardens/terraces (perfect for partying!) at the various hostels/hotels.

We spent our first evening and the next day in Istanbul with fellow travellers - and new-found friends, John and Shannon. They were from Wakatane, NZ, on the Bay of Plenty. They had been travelling for about six weeks and had about two weeks left before they returned home to their jobs. (He was a police officer and she caught shoplifters at a grocery store - that's how they'd met.) Their travels had included two short tours of Europe and Egypt. Shannon had travelled very little previously, but John had been to Turkey twice before, so spoke some Turkish.

Istanbul (population 15 million), Turkey's major city (and a huge sprawling city it is), is like a piece of Turkish delight waiting to be devoured - there's so much to see and do here, from touring the incredible Blue Mosque (named for the blue tiles in its interior), Aya Sofya church and Topkapi Palace to wandering through the Grand Bazaar where you can buy silver and gold jewellry, scarves, leather, carpets and even belly-dancing outfits. The food in itself is pure indulgence: lamb and beef kababs, delicious bread and dips, sweet treats like baklava and Turkish delight, lots of fresh fruit and vegetables. Real Turkish delight is nothing like what we have in Canada; the traditional type is tender and rose-flavoured, other types taste more like marshmallows and are rolled in coconut or pistachios. And, believe it or not, it's really not all that sweet. Yum! (I like the apple or orange tea that they serve in little glasses that burn your hands, though I understand that it's only babies and tourists that drink it. That's OK - call me a baby.) The population of Turkey is only 70 million, so one in every four to five people live here.

According to our guidebook, 98% of Turks are Muslims. Islamic law states that Muslims must not touch or eat pork, or drink alcohol (though I don't think the alcohol part is very strictly adhered to.) Thus you won't see any pork on restaurant menus - only lamb, beef and chicken. Mosques usually consist of a dome-like structure and one or more towers called minarets. Five times each day - at dawn, lunch time, afternoon, dusk and evening - imans or holy men call people to prayer over loudspeakers in kind of a sing-song voice - it's very enchanting. Because it is Ramazan, each morning about four o'clock there are drummers out in the street waking people up to eat before dawn. Ear plugs are required if you want to sleep past 3:30 am!

Many Muslims fast during Ramazan; pregnant/nursing women, as well as young children, the aged and tourists are not expected to participate. Before praying, Muslims wash their hands, arms, feet, ankles, head and neck in running water. There are places to do this outside every mosque.

Many of the restaurants/cafes here have men standing out on the sidewalks actively recruiting customers. Some places have mini tables and chairs, not much larger than children's furniture. I laughed at Martin trying to make himself comfortable and broke into hysterics when I thought of someone larger (like my boss, Lyle, who's 6'6") attempting to squeeze himself into that small a space.

Unlike some Muslim countries, tourists are allowed in most mosques in Turkey, though you must remove your shoes and all women must have their legs, shoulders and cleavage covered. Shannon told us that is Egypt she was given what she referred to as a "tent" to put on because, being rather busty and voluptuous, her shirt was too tight to be considered modest. She was careful to cover up upon entering the Blue Mosque so that she wouldn't have to wear the dreaded tent again.

Probably the most impressive building in Istanbul is Aya Sofya built in the 6th century. It has a magnificent dome supported by 40 massive ribs; mosaic portraits from the 9th and 10th centuries are visible on the main floor and are also displayed on the second level. Visitors can put their finger in the weeping column - legend has it that if your finger emerges wet your ailments will be cured.

Also very interesting was a tour of the harem at Topkapi Palace. The sultan had up to 300 women in his harem, all of whom were foreigners because Islam forbade enslaving Muslims, Christians or Jews. Upon entering the harem, the girls were schooled in Turkish and Islam, as well as the arts of dance, music and various handcrafts. Only a selected few were sexual partners of the sultan - traditionally he had up to four legitimate wives and eight to ten "favourites". The remainder of the women were slaves who served the harem. It was amazing that this 15th century building had both hot and cold running water and in-floor heat. (In Topkapi Palace, there was also a display of Sultans' clothes, some of whom must have been pretty big boys!)

Although Istanbul used to be an inexpensive place to visit, it isn't particularly any longer. I noted that silver earrings, similar to those I'd seen in SE Asia, were about three to four times as expensive ($12-15 CDN, as compared to $3-5 in Cambodia); scarves were similarly priced. John seemed almost disappointed at the lack of hassling in the Grand Bazaar; when he was here on his last two trips he said the vendors wouldn't leave him alone. Perhaps things have changed or it may be that it's the end of the tourist season and everyone is tired of the selling game. Last time he was here, he and his friend developed the international language of "golf clubs", a topic few people here have knowledge of. When asked the usual "Where you from?", they would reply, quite seriously with a bit of inflection in their voices, "golf clubs" or "pitching wedge" or something similarly related to the game of golf. It certainly left the locals scratching their heads! (I think answering "Saskatchewan" might have the same effect, though I'm amazed at how many people have heard of Saskatoon!) He had us roaring with laughter. (I took the Canadian flag off my daypack while I was here so that I wouldn't hear "Canada" being called after me as I walked along. Seems everyone has a good friend/relative/etc in Canada, yadda, yadda, yadda.

There are lots of cats and dogs roaming the streets, some better cared for than others. You especially see cats everywhere - in people's homes, in hotels and in restaurants. They're particularly a nuisance in outdoor cafes. We ran into a German couple who had actually bought a small bag of catfood and carried it around to feed all the hungry cats. (Apparently cats are preferred over dogs because they were the prophet Mohammed's favourite pet.)

The currency here is the New Turkish Lira (YTL) which was introduced in January 2005, replacing the Turkish Lira (TL). The old lira came in coins of 25,000, 50,000, 100,000 and 250,000 lira; notes were 250,000, 500,000, 1 million, 5 million, 10 million and 20 million lira. With inflation, a simple restaurant bill came to millions of lira! Thus one million lira became 1 lira and much easier to work with. Often, prices are quoted in more stable Euros or US dollars. (Turkey is currently negotiating becoming part of the EU, so may switch to the Euro at some point in the future. However, many Europeans have commented that the introduction of the Euro has increased the cost of living dramatically. Just imagine the effect on a country like Turkey!)

John and Shannon stayed in Istanbul for two nights and then they made the pilgrimage to Gallipoli, as most Aussies and Kiwis do. John plans to look for his namesake who died there. During WWI, over 36,000 Allies were killed at Gallipoli, as well as thousands of French and 55,000 Turks. The whole peninsula is maintained as a memorial site; there are many interesting stories about the fighting that took place, like how the ANZAC (Australian New Zealand Army Core) and Turks often exchanged food in the trenches and how they would often call cease fires so that both sides could pick up their dead and wounded. It was the Turks who emerged the victors, mostly do to the strategic genius of a Turkish officer named Gazi Mustafa Kemal, aka Atatürk. You see his name all over Turkey - the international airport at Istanbul is named after him.

The weather here is somewhat warmer than Germany, though the wind really picks up in the afternoon and makes it rather chilly. One night, just at dusk, Martin and I walked through the central business district to one of the mosques on top of the hill. (It's well known amongst travellers that nearly everything worth seeing is at the top of a hill.) The whole area was deserted (everyone had closed up and gone off to break their fast). The only sounds/sights where hundreds of plastic bags blowing around the street and a number of yowling cats. Overhead, thousands of iridescent seagulls lit up the sky. It was very eerie.

Martin and I made the obligatory visit to a carpet store - actually, we were pulled in off the street, shown just about every carpet in the place and provided with the dreaded Turkish tea (an indication that you're serious about purchasing). However, there was really no pressure to buy and we learned quite a bit about the different carpet types, qualities, designs, etc. (For one thing, carpets are knotted whereas kilims are woven.)

The woman behind the desk at our second hotel informed us that the streets are rather quiet right now during the day because of Ramazan. People tend to stay at home until evening to conserve their energy. She told us that not eating or drinking all day can be particularly difficult when Ramazan was in August and the weather is very hot.
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