Europe meets Asia - the great divide...

Trip Start Apr 29, 2006
Trip End Ongoing

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Saturday, September 2, 2006

Halfies are hot. They always were and they always will be. You know what I'm talking about - that eurasian phenomenon. The phenomenon whereby people of half asian half european descent invariably, if not without fail, turn out beautiful. Halfies? Hot. Istanbul has proven that the phenomenon applies to cities as well as people. Perched on this continental divide, Istanbul is a truly incredible city - ever fascinating and marvellous. From the water's edge, and most notably from the top of Galata Tower, you can see Istanbul sprawl into both asia and europe; countless imposing mosques lighting up the skyline of the peninsulas separating the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmaris. A sense oozes from every corner; an energy not experienced since leaving Hong Kong, derived partly from chaos, partly from the sheer number of people, and partly from an unidentifiable but unmistakable magnetic charm that some cities are fortunate enough to possess. Such is the thrill of Istanbul. Not a moment goes by in Istanbul where someone doesn't have a near death experience involving a motor vehicle; where an unbelievable carpet offer ("just for you my friend") goes unaccepted; where an Australian backpacker doesn't regret a kebab; where you don't stop and ponder how this wondrous city, a former centre of the roman and medieval world, fits into the grand modern scheme. Much pondering but little conclusion. If I can affirm one thing though, based upon my time in Istanbul, it's that halfies are hot.

I feel that I'm slowly being converted. To Islam. Subliminnaly. You see, the first call to prayer comes in the midst of night or, at least, in the middle of the sleeping hours I keep. Occasionally I'll wake, sometimes not. But when I do, having been subconsciously (or is it unconsciously) open to the hypnotic, haunting and beautiful calls during my slumber, I just feel the urge to go and visit a mosque or two. And there are a plethora. They're everywhere. Perhaps the most touristed and spectacular are the Blue Mosque and the Aya Sofia. Individually incredible, each of these two mosques benefits from their proximity to one another, to create a corridor that has not, as yet, failed to capture me completely. Both gigantic, bold and (no - not beautiful) elegant, they face each other in peaceful confrontation and engage in a silent argument as to which of the two is finer. There are no resolutions to such an argument - as each mosque silently brings to attention another of its undeniable qualities - only an agreement to disagree. And so they stand, for eternity if not forever (in joke...) in a two bishop stalemate. Only of course, if Aya Sofia doesn't collapse before it's restored.

The interiors of both affirmed my impression that they must be some of the finest places of worship in the world. Certainly the most memorable that I have visited on this trip. The blue mosque, so called because of the tiling of the interior, shimmers a subtle blue through the sparse veil created by the ropes dangling from the roof. Aya Sofia, actually, is now a museum. It has suffered slightly from an identity crisis, having previously been a mosque, and originally build as a basilica. Aya Sofia's transition between christianity and islam is, perhaps, it's most fascinating quality, with the recently uncovered and restored mosaics of the virgin mary and christ hovering over massive arabic windows and characters. And it is, both the interior and exterior, architecturally wonderful.

Mosques always impress me with their windows - in number; in design; in arrangement - and the way that all of these create endless streams of light in all directions. Sitting on the floor is also brilliant. If you didn't know, sitting on the floor is the new standing, which was the new sitting, which was the new pink, which was the new black. Go figure. Sitting on the floor? Brilliant.

Having been bombarded by the call to prayer night after night, and then entering mosque after mosque, being constantly amazing, I started to think - "Yeah. Conversion to Islam. Good thinking!" Whilst sitting on the floor of the blue mosque, I started to ponder the cons of being Muslim. One immediately came to nose. Indeed, it is unfortunate that one is required to remove footwear in a mosque. Perhaps even moreso in a tourist filled mosque on a 37 degree day. The smell, even in a chamber as large as these mosques, is not particularly pleasant. Even more credit to the faithful for enduring such conditions. If I were such faithful, the smell I could overcome. The prohibition on pork I could not. One cannot, in all reality, yum cha without pork. One cannot have bacon with their eggs under this prohibition. Pork crackle, a good proscuitto? And did I mention yum cha? The islamic conversion has been defeated by the pork bun. Like it was ever going to happen.

Despite being a sight filled city, Istanbul offers so much more. Taksim, the hub of modern Istanbul, thrives at all hours, with street stall and restaurants, bars and clubs both in basements and on rooftops; shopping opportunities for the rich, poor and backpacker. In all honesty, in Taksim, you have your two turntables and a microphone. In amongst a city filled with constant excitement, it still shines above the rest. Taksim? Brilliant. The list of brilliant istanbul features continues, especially the consumables: turkish coffee, apple tea, water pipes, turkish delight, chicken rice that reminds me oh so much of great Singaporean Hawkers chicken rice. The turkish coffee is particularly brilliant. Rounded out by exploration of the obelisk filled 'Hippodrome', which is where the sultan used to play hungry hungry hippos with his harem, and a relaxing boat trip on the Bosphorous up to the black sea, my first first days in Istanbul has been good. Brilliant even.

And so to the Top 5. Here's a story. The other night, whilst out in Taksim having a drink, I met a guy from Istanbul who turned out to be a government lawyer - crazy? Anyway, his main area of work was in the licensing of touts and shop owners and he told me about some of the random prerequisites that Turkish carpet sellers had to fulfil in order to obtain a licence to be a carpet seller. Here are the top 5 most surprising:

5. The person must be so incredibly popular that everyone, whether or not he has met that person before, is "his friend".
4. The person must be happy to state the obvious at every available opportunity. "I am here" and "I have carpet" are commonly used.
3. The person must have passed Greetings 101 at Tafe which teaches a person every greeting in every single language in the world, and how to use them in conjunction with guessing nationalities. "Nee hao... Konichiwa... Annyeonghaseyo".
2. The person must have a brother or cousin who is also a tout, selling a different product.
1. The person must have a government approved moustache.

More to come from Istanbul...
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