The golden horn of Istanbul

Trip Start Feb 04, 2011
Trip End Nov 04, 2011

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Where I stayed
Deluxe Goldern Horn

Flag of Turkey  ,
Thursday, June 2, 2011

Leaving Beirut after a month was quite a hard departure. I'd become very attached to this crazy Middle Eastern city and in the last month I was blessed with perfect weather, great company and a really nice apartment in the bustling commercial district of Hamra. Now it was time to fly to move on to gloomier parts of the world where I probably wouldn't be so lucky, especially as a lot of the forthcoming trip would be overland through some rather miserable checkpoints, I imagine. Imad drove me to the airport and I flew to Istanbul which was a very civilised way to leave Lebanon and the flight was very short.

After many weeks of being away from Turkey, I was now back but this time it was a different type of Turkey. It was now much warmer than when I travelled through the south of Turkey by bus and I was no longer hopping from one seaside city to the next. This time it was the city of Istanbul. The taxi ride from the airport to the old part of the city revealed a different Turkey than I'd seen previously. Trams full of people, huge shopping centres and the worst traffic imaginable. At one point the taxi was moving at a snail's pace and it took several minutes just to reach the next block. Eventually the hotel was in sight, and I waited twenty minutes to be able to check in thanks to the assortment of difficult hotel guests with their endless complaints and requests. When I was finally attended to, I was upgraded to a really nice suite with a view of the Blue Mosque and my friend Mika was on her way to meet me at the hotel.

When Mika arrived at the hotel she called my room and came up to the fourth floor to meet me in my luxurious suite. Within minutes I received a call from reception asking me to get that guest out of my room. I was quite furious. Apparently it's their hotel policy to not allow anyone else in the room. It was midday. Obviously it made my friend feel like some sort of visiting escort and I can only imagine what they must have concluded. Perhaps they thought I was in my room thinking, "what do I feel like right now? A kebab or a prostitute?" We were both about to leave the hotel room to explore the city when reception phoned me, so we made our way downstairs and I had a discreet word to the guy at reception who phoned me. 

"Out of the forty something hotels I've stayed at in the last few months, I've never been so insulted by hotel staff like that - not to mention insulting a friend of mine. When I come back at the end of the day I want to have a word with your manager and get you to put up a big sign at reception desk that warns people about having anyone in their room. Don't ever treat your guests like that again or I'll make sure everyone knows about your policy before they decide to book a room in this hotel. Is that clear?"

The guy apologised but remained adamant about their room policy. I haven't finished with that hotel. I've never been driven to complain so actively about a hotel before but it was quite embarrassing to be spoken to like that. Mika was fine about it but I told her to look furious. I then tried to forget that incident and we walked through the old city to a restaurant for some Turkish lunch which was obviously aimed at tourists so it wasn't as cheap as can be expected in Istanbul but it was very authentic and tasty. The Turks do amazing things with baked vegetables, especially eggplant and capsicum (sorry - that's otherwise known as aubergine and peppers for those of you from other parts) and of course, meat. Lots of it. However, it's very easy to be a vegetarian here and they make good use of their vegetables.

It was a fairly warm day as Istanbul had finally decided to start warming up. I was watching the weather reports for the last few weeks and the weather looked quite dismal but it had turned up the heat for me which is what I like. The hotter the better. We had a look around the museum that contains artefacts from the Ottoman era and then went down to the port in search of the famous mackerel sandwich. I also had one mundane little chore which I had to do that day - buy a bus ticket to Bulgaria. In Turkey it's easy to just jump on buses without a reservation but my main concern was that it's now summer and I'm about to take an international bus so it'd be nice to know the day before if it's all possible. Also, it meant I could wake up the next morning knowing exactly what time to be at the bus station. When I was last in Turkey (along the southern coast) there were bus offices everywhere so it wasn't necessary to head out to the otogar (bus station) which is always located far from the city centre. Some of the Turkish bus stations are so far from the main part of town that a taxi fare from the bus station to the city centre usually costs more than the long distance bus fare from city to city. 

After walking around endlessly in search of a local bus office, I decided to try the train instead as the train station was only a few blocks away. Also, I had a friend with me so I didn't want to spend half the day dragging a friend around Istanbul when there was too much to do in this great city besides looking for a way out. The station was a little run down and had clearly seen better days. The thing about Turkey's transport is that buses are so plentiful and competitive that there's really very little point taking a train unless you're OK about arriving late and of course, the train stations are always central - as opposed to the bus stations that resemble airports. As soon as we entered the train station, I knew it was not meant to be.

"Do you think the trains here are similar to the shinkansen (bullet train) in Japan? Really comfortable inside with snack trollies and spacious seats?" Mika made me laugh when she said that. I pointed to a delapidated train on the platform which looked like it had been through the last Balkans war and said to her, "there's your shinkansen". I really wasn't looking forward to train travel and the station had such an unfriendly feel about it. When we finally found the international ticket counter and had to wait ten minutes while the old man in the window finished with his phone call, it was clear that this was not going to be one of those "how can I help you?" moments. Customer service and state run trains don't go hand in hand, it seems.

I didn't have all my Turkish notes with me and this is a language that doesn't enter my brain too easily. It's unlike any other language I'm familiar with and although there are some slight similarities to Arabic (a few words), that wasn't helping me. After asking him the usual "Sprechen Sie deutsch? Do you speak English? Parlez vous francais?" he shrugged his shoulders and said "Turkish". Of course - because you work at the international counter of a railway station and you're not a day under seventy years old. It's fairly obvious that this man had inherited this position from his father and had no intention to learn another language. No problem. I fumbled through the few words I knew in Turkish and bingo - a train ticket in my hand. But wait a minute - I didn't ask for the night train. It appears I'd misread the train timetable (printed only in Turkish) that displayed another train which arrived in the morning - not departed. It cost me twenty lira (almost twenty dollars) to cancel the ticket and I think that's my first and last impression of Turkey's train network, after dealing with someone in the main station of Turkey's largest city - at the international counter. Good luck to anyone else who attempts this ordeal in Istanbul and I hope you study Turkish for a few months before you're "eligible" to speak to this old dinosaur.

After walking around the bazaars of Istanbul with Mika, I noticed something very peculiar. "Mika - everyone speaks to you in Japanese". I know that German is an important language in Turkey because of the migration and tourism links, which is why I always start with "sprechen Sie deutsch?" instead of "do you speak English?" but everywhere we went, the language of the day or "langue du jour" was Japanese! The amount of people in Istanbul who can communicate in Japanese is astounding. Apparently the two countries share a common bond of mutual trust, good commercial ties and there are some grammatical similarities that make it easy for Turks to learn Japanese. So instead of asking that old dinosaur in the station "sprechen Sie deutsch?", perhaps I should have asked "nihongo ga dekimasu?". Somehow, I think he would have still shrugged his shoulders. It's a part of his job to be unhelpful.

I introduced Mika to the art of smoking a Turkish nagileh or hookah, as we call it in the West. There's nothing more Middle Eastern than having a long pipe filled with fragrant water and tobacco to pass the time in this part of the world. After giving up on the idea of buying a ticket to Bulgaria that day, we went to the funky nightlife district of Taksim for a few drinks and snacks in a great little outdoor bar with friendly staff and a good atmosphere. This city definitely has a real charm about it and it's a "must see" for anyone thinking about travelling around this region. It also helps to be a Japanese female if you want the extra attention and service. I told Mika "this is exactly what it's like being a Western guy in Bangkok. Good luck - after a few weeks it becomes very annoying". While saying that, I overheard a Turkish guy in the bazaar yelling out "I love you" in Japanese to Mika. Yes, it's only a few words away from "love you long time" and I wish her all the luck while she makes Istanbul her new home for the next three months.

The next morning I woke up early and went upstairs to have breakfast on the rooftop terrace. The view of the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia was beyond description and I can't think of a better way to start the day. Actually, if I could change one minor detail I would have stayed at the table to defend my breakfast because as soon as I went back inside to get a cup of coffee, a seagull the size of an albatross swooped down on my table and devoured my omelette. It came back several times while I was seated. This bird was huge and it was clearly using steroids to be that size. Very intimidating.

I took a taxi to the far flung otogar (bus station) and as I expected, the taxifare to the bus station cost more than the bus trip to Sofia. There was a bus leaving within twenty minutes of arriving at the station which meant I'd spent all that time walking around Istanbul yesterday in vain. The bus was comfortable and the border crossing into Bulgaria was not as bad as I'd expected. The bus stewardess was quite possibly the most miserable bus person I'd come across in Turkey and after I met a Tunisian guy on the bus, we both decided to see who could make her smile. She was like Satan's daughter - a real piece of work. It took several hours of failed attempts and as is the norm on Turkish buses, rest stops are not clearly announced. Sometimes there's not even time to use a toilet before the bus unloads and reloads passengers and then pulls off into the distance while you're still fumbling for change to pay a toilet attendant to use the worst smelling toilet in the world. Why is it that the world's worst toilets have toilet attendants? I don't get it.

I won the game when I crouched down in a foetal position to show how desperately I needed to use the toilet at that bus stop. She smiled. I know she only smiled to express her satisfaction in seeing someone in pain, but I won the game. And no - she didn't give me time to use the toilet. I had to hold it in for another hour. A few minutes longer and the loser of that game would have been the cleaner of that bus. Somehow - I think that would have been her and I'm guessing she wouldn't have been smiling then. Bless her bitter heart! We arrived in Sofia earlier than expected and I look forward to seeing her on another friendly bus trip where service is a smile (or not).   

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