Touring Istanbul

Trip Start Jun 19, 2008
Trip End Sep 04, 2008

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Monday, July 7, 2008

July 5, 2008
First morning in Istanbul!  My roommmate and I woke up bright and early at 8am to grab our free breakfast.  Our dorm is somewhat of a hole in the wall.  It is definitely not a quaint building surrounded among mosques and shops that I had in mind.  The streets are narrow and sparsely populated.  The dorm itself is modern enough, equipped with a kitchen, bathroom, internet, and free breakfast.  The cafeteria, however, was abandoned when we went down, and according to our floormate from Tajikistan (the country next to China, you know?), the free breakfast is not served until Monday.  So we decided to go out for a brunch to a nearby cafe before our orientation at 1pm. 

With lots of confusion and body language as usual, we managed to order a plate of meat and a sandwich at a cute supermarket/cafe type of place.  Sunnie and Laura tried the obligatory Turkish coffee (I unfortunately do not drink coffee).  It came in a tiny tea cup with a powdery cube on the side.  Laura dumped the cube into her coffee, only to realize later that it was not a cube of sugar but an after-coffee treat, a.k.a. Turkish delight!  She fished it out discreetly before a Turk could catch this faux paus.  I grabbed what I thought was a mint from a bucket, and that turned out to be a cube of sugar you are supposed to put in the coffee.  When we ordered chai (tea), the waitress asked, "Beer?"  No, we said, chai.  She asked again, "Beer?" It turns out that beer means one in Turkish!  ...We are learning.

The orientation at the university was somewhat of a blur.  We had a guest speaker who droned about the political climate in Turkey.  Then we went around the university which, like our dorm, is somewhat of a hole in the wall...  all the floors are red in both buildings- possibly a manifestation of nationalism?

Jetlagged and deliriously tired, some of us went back to the dorm via campus shuttle, and the rest of us, including me, decided to walk down the Taksim area, the hot spot of Istanbul.  Oh, the warm light, the atmosphere, the shops, the crowded streets, the street vendors, yes!  This is it!  This is why I came to Istanbul!  We walked the whole stretch, stopping by to get some Turkish ice cream.  The ice cream guy twirled a huge dough of ice cream at the end of a metal stick and did some obnoxious tricks before I could finally taste the ice cream.  Rather than being creamy, it has a jelly-like, elastic texture in the middle.  Delicious!

By the time we reached our dorm, we were exhausted.  My roommate and I definitely, definitely wanted to go back out to Taksim later in the night (it was Saturday night!) and decided to nap in preparation.  Either other people were way too tired or they are not partiers (hopefully the former), Laura and I found ourselves braving up the way to Taksim.  The place was even better at night!  The shops were open until late, the outdoor cafes stretched out in the sidestreets, young and hip Turks were out and about-- I loved the atmosphere.  So many people seemed to be fascinated by me; they most likely have not seen many Asians outside of the tour buses that frequent Hagia Sofia.  Thankfully, I got used to this whole "Japon, Japon" business in Egypt.

After taking in the scene, we stepped into a heavily crowded bar: a heavy metal rock bar, to be exact.  The clientele consisted of long-haired gothic people headbanging to Ozzy Osbourne and some other tunes I have heard people play on Guitar Hero.  We left as soon as we finished our beer.  Feeling quite good, we went up and down some other side streets until we found our niche.  It was a cafe-bar with live music.  Two very attractive singers were on a small platform playing Turkish pop music (somewhat John Mayor-like).  People were shoulder-dancing, and several girls got up to do their little cha-chas, yet it was not too rowdy or crowded.  It was so fun!  We will definitely be coming back here, providing we remember the place.  I feel so alive in Taksim.

July 6, 2008
The city tour consumed the vast majority of our day today.  The itinerary was simple enough: Hagia Sofia, Blue Mosque, Mosaic museum, and Museum of Islamic Arts.  But somehow, with our eccentric history professor Christoff, the whole tour took more than 6 hours!  He has a bright orange beard that hang on either side of his cheeks.  I was just waiting for him to rip them off and say it is all one big joke.  But he never did.  The more I scrutnized his bizarre facial hair, the more I became baffled by its existence and form.  Apparently, I was not the only one since people have snapped paparazzi photos of him throughout the day. On top of this, his German accent and extremely detail-oriented tour left everyone feeling both amused and bored.  The group kept falling apart, hence the extremely long tour.  The group was definitely segregated by majors.  There are about 20 of us, half of whom are history/religion/art history majors and the others majoring in something pretty unrelated, like industrial engineering and psychology.  The former group obviously could not get more of the places we visited; while, the rest of us could not stop thinking about food and shopping.

Hagia Sofia has been a church, a mosque, and now a museum and a mass tourism spot.  It had gone through so much changes for centuries and had enough details to take a whole quarter's worth of course materials (one girl actually did take a course like that!).  It was not the most picturesque or colorful building, however.  I personally found the Blue Mosque much more impressive and interesting.  I wore the scarf I got from Egypt and was just paranoid it would fall off exposing my shoulders (gasp!).  Like the mosques in Egypt, they provided yards of simple fabric for scantily clad tourists.  I don't know how people manage to pray admist all the camera flashes and noisy tourists in the mosque, but I saw two dozen men praying in the middle of the mosque.

After trudging through two museums, we were so ready to leave!  The history/religion/art history group, of course, stayed with Christoff while the rest of us dispersed and came back to the dorm.  I definitely passed out until 7:30pm or so, until my stomach begged me to feed it some Turkish delights.  Sunny came over to our room with a great suggestion for dinner, which is always good because I have not done my research, and we walked over the bridge to the Asian side of the city.  There were several rocking boats at the dock, cooking fish kebab.  It was only 4YTL!  We crouched on tiny wooden stools and munched on a sub filled with unknown grilled fish and onions.  It wasn't too bad.  We plopped down on some bean bag chairs at a restaurant on the bridge and smoked sheesha as we watched the sunset.  Life is good!  Except the hookah is like 10 times more expensive here than Egypt... it's alright because my spending today added up to 15YTL!  I think I could really get used to this place.
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