Saturday, January 7, 2012

Istanbul

 
Now its time to discuss the important part of the journey, Istanbul. When I was planning the vacation I sort of knew that Istanbul would be a bigger and better city compared to Sofia and Bucharest and we allowed more time there than the other cities but little did we know... 

My Passport after crossing over the Turkish border. Only halfway finished with my trip. I might need more pages for my passport after Moldova...
My exciting collection of money not including Turkish Lira. 

Istanbul is probably the most beautiful, modern (while also rich in history), friendly, clean, and interesting city I have ever visited. Oh and did I mention cheap? I am beginning to sound like a broken record even to myself because of how often I have been singing the praises of Istanbul to anyone who will listen but its true. If you have never been to Istanbul and plan on taking a vacation anytime soon I recommend you place Istanbul at the top of your wish list.

To start off the train to Istanbul from Sofia was the newest and most comfortable train we rode on so before we even left Bulgaria we were already excited for what we would find in Turkey. We were however brought down a level when we were rudely awakened at some ungodly hour in the middle of the night and forced to leave the train and walk in the cold to another building spend 20 US dollars to buy a visa so we could enter then country and then proceed to stay awake while everyone’s passports were stamped. Although that sounds horrible now that I am writing it, to us it wasn’t as bad because the night before we didn’t even have beds and spent the whole night in seats with the lights on being awakened every two hours. We found it hard to complain too much because we all went straight back to a beautiful sleep that lasted until we were about 20 minutes from Istanbul. From the window we could already see that Turkey was going to be different. Our trip so far had taken us through two other countries outside of Moldova but all three countries were once on the other side of the iron curtain and the effects of this are still clearly seen almost everywhere you look, especially in the architecture. But as soon as we crossed over to Turkey everything changed…
The second row bunks fold up so the bottom bunks can function as a couch of sorts. Six people...one itty bitty train compartment.
Life on the top bunk would have been perfect with just a tad bit more head room.

My main love affair with Istanbul started when we first saw the Ayasofya (aka Hagia Sofia) and the Sultan Ahmed Mosque (Blue Mosque) both of which from the outside are so beautiful and blend in so well with their surrounding that it really is breathtaking. Not to mention the fact that they are both so close to each other you can literally turn your head from one to the other. After we saw the view we were even more satisfied with our living arrangements because our hostel was between both of them and now our walk home everyday would mean passing by both of those buildings.
Ayasofya
Sultan Ahmed Mosque

Another difference between Turkey and Romania/Bulgaria is that we don’t speak the language. When we were in Romania all of us could interact with the locals no matter if they spoke English or not and we all understood the signs/maps/instructions etc. In Bulgaria we had one member of our group who had learned Russian instead of Romanian and she was able to mostly understand what was going on in Bulgaria and in the very least was able to read better than most of us in the Cyrillic alphabet. But now that we were in Turkey we lost that language edge. It was as if we suddenly had stopped being travellers and really started to feel like tourists. To help with the transition we were lucky that my host brother that I had met a couple times in Moldova lives in Turkey and volunteered to give us the grand Istanbul tour. He spent the better part of two days leading us around and giving us the insider’s tour to Istanbul. On the first day alone we visited:
Ayasofya,

Sultan Ahmed Mosque, 

Basilica Cistern,

Topkapi Palace, 

Galata Tower 

Istanbul Mall

and the Istanbul version of Times Square. 

The second day we traveled to the Grand Bazaar and Asia and had a Turkish fast food lunch.

It was pretty awesome to get most of the touristy things out of the way because that left us with the next three days to explore whatever we wanted and that way we didn’t feel any amount of stress that we wouldn’t have time to see everything. Personally high on my list of things to do was to visit as many American fast food restaurants as possible. To maximize the effect I sometimes at two meals while I was there so that I could thoroughly enjoy the experience as much as possible and savor as much American comfort food as I could stuff in my belly. In case anyone is wondering, I was able to find a Burger King, McDonalds, Pizza Hut, Carl’s Jr, KFC, Popeyes, Starbucks, Dunkin’ Doughnuts, Krispy Kreme, and Dominos. But don’t worry I didn’t have time to visit all of them, I tried to keep it half and half, Turkish and America.

The Turkish food I ate was all delicious and was a significant departure from the foods I have been eating for the past 7 months. Most of it had a lot more spice, a lot less bread, and in general quite satisfying. For instance my first lunch in Istanbul was a doner, which to me look suspiciously like a gyro…complete with the rotating slab of meat on a skewer. But seeing as how Greece is a neighbor I don’t see how the resemblance would be surprising. 



My fast food lunch in Asia I described earlier consisted of a flat bread covered in a spicy sauce and then turned over to form a semi circle. It is served with a drink called Ayran that is sort of a watery version of sour cream, which helps to cool down the spice. They also gave packets of red pepper to help turn up the heat if that’s what your into.



When I wasn’t eating at meal times I was eating in between meal times at street vendors. They were everywhere and common fare included roasted chestnuts, corn on the cob, and warm sugary bread. Also there were a lot of street vendors that made fresh pomegranate or orange juice right on the spot with a pretty cool manual juicer. However, if you have never had straight pomegranate juice before I don’t recommend it. Luckily I had only tried someone else’s and didn’t buy one myself. One sip was enough to know how terrible it is. But my above and beyond favorite drink is Saleb. It is made in big copper contraptions that vent out steam and at night in the winter time you can see one from a mile away which made them super convenient. Basically saleb is milk, sugar, and an extract from the root of a orchid. Absolutely delicious. The vendors usually sell it for about 1.50 for one small cup full but if you look unimpressed with the price you can usually get it for only .50 cents. I went on the search while I was in Istanbul and found some instant saleb mix in one of the Turkish convenience stores that I am pretty sure usually only caters to only Turks because the person working the register gave me awkward stares and didn’t speak any English. Didn’t matter to me because I was able to get a whole package of saleb for 2 dollars. Enough to make at least 10 large cups back here in Moldova. (Sidenote: Can anyone do a little searching in stores in America and see if you can locate some Saleb? I might decide to move to Turkey after Moldova if not. lol)


As I mentioned with the saleb bartering with the seller is a big part of every transaction in Istanbul. Even at restaurants and some brick-and-mortar stores. For me bartering wasn’t something I was opposed to but I didn’t really feel the need most of the time because the price that the seller usually started off with already seemed reasonable based on the size of the city, being in a tourist area, and from my background knowledge of what a comparable item would cost in America. But like everyone else I played the game. I didn’t initially plan on spending too much money at the grand bazaar but everything inside the grand bazaar is so beautiful, unique and moderately priced that by the time I left I had bought gifts for my whole family and for everyone in Moldova and I still didn’t feel like I had really spent that much money especially when I went back to the hostel and actually looked at how much I was able to buy on my very limited Peace Corps budget. It was a really fun experience aside from getting a good deal because all of the Turkish people I met were exceptionally nice. Now I know most people will say that they were nice only because they want to sell things. But Ive been in a lot of places where people wanted to sell me things and none of them had people who were as nice as everyone I met in Turkey. It was so much fun playing the bartering game with every vendor because each one was different.

Approach…look around unimpressed with the selection.
“HELLO My friend! Howareyou?! Where are you from?”
“America.”
“America! I love America. You guys are the best! What are you looking for?! A gift for your family or yourself?”
“Im not sure yet. Depends on what I find.”
“Oh well I like you. I will give you a really good deal. I don’t normally do this but everything on this shelf you can have for 5 dollars.”
Picking something up…not looking very impressed. “That’s not a bad price I guess. Do you have this in blue perhaps?”
“Yes of course! Here you can have three!”
“Five dollars you said? Hmm…that’s alright. I don’t really think I need it right now…”
“WAIT!!!! Did I say 5 dollars?” Grabbing your arm and pulling you closer. “My friend for you I can give an even better deal. But we have to keep it a secret. And only because I can see that you have real good taste in gifts. And my gifts are of the best quality. The other stores will lie to you and their quality is bad. How about you can have it for 3 dollars.”
“3 dollars sounds reasonable. How about I take 3 of them and a keychain for 12. That’s all I seem to have left in my wallet.“
“Would you like them in a bag?”

Like I said no two vendors were the same but this is about how it went. Somewhere in the middle if the vendor has made his quota for the day or just doesn’t feel like you are being reasonable he will simply turn around and ignore you if you pick a price too far below his starting price. At which point it really isn’t a big loss because you simply go next door to the other vendor and try again and just add a dollar to your last unsatisfactory bid. The grand bazaar is also so immense that you really could spend the entire day inside of it (I did) and still never visit all of the little shops or peruse all of the curious knickknacks inside that you really can’t find anywhere else.





There is also the Spice Bazaar which is really the same as the grand bazaar but instead of knickknacks and souvenirs it sells spices, tea, and turkish delights.





So as I have mentioned Istanbul has the sites, the people, the food, and the cheap prices what I have neglected to mention is the fact that it also has an amazing transportation network. It has a train station, airport, boats, trams, subway, funicular, cable cars, buses, and an aerial tramway. It even has a very impressive bridge that crosses over the Bosphorus Strait and connects the European side of Istanbul to the Asian side for automobile traffic. When I crossed over to the Asian side we used a commuter boat on the way to Asia for 1 dollar and used the bus crossing over the bridge on the way back, also 1 dollar. The only argument I would have is that if you plan on switching between transit methods multiple times it can be costly. Everything cost 1 dollar per ride but if you switch, from the subway to the bus for instance, you have to pay another 1 dollar. For example to go to the mall from our hostel we had to ride the tram, the funicular, and the subway. Three switches so it cost 3 dollars. Plus the return journey. In comparison to the Washington metro it is a lot less expensive as long as you can get there using only the same method of travel.

The commuter boat that crosses the strait.




These trams were awesome!



Anyway, enough about Istanbul.

Now that I have crossed off three more countries and visited Asia I am now starting to feel like a real worldwide traveler especially because for every city we visited we ran into people we knew completely randomly. Its such an odd sensation to be in a place you have never visited before hundreds of miles from home and to have someone you know call out your name… Granted everyone we meet was also Peace Corps Volunteers and our options for vacations are limited if we choose not to fly to Western Europe but the coolness factor remains.

Finding friends in Bucharest
Finding friends in Sofia

Finding friends in Istanbul


Oh I almost forgot to mention. You cant have a perfect vacation without a little bit of sacrifice. In order to get home from Istanbul we had to ride the train for 20 hours to Bucharest and then jump off the train and literally run to the ticket window and buy tickets to Chisinau and run to catch the train. We then were on that train for another 13 hours! 33 hours on a train with only a 10 minute respite of solid ground. When we finally got to Chisinau in order to get home I had to ride yet another train for 4 hours. Anyway. I made it back and the trains didnt kill me but Im thinking Im gonna have to switch it up for the next trip. Ive had enough trains.

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