Monday, October 25, 2010

Istanbul, Turkey, Part Two

After a great night's sleep, it was time to start day two. Reina and I both started out a little slow trying to make up for the overnight bus sleep the night before. When we finally got moving, I was incredibly hungry and needed to break my fast. I headed up for breakfast on the top floor and was completely surprised to see amazing views of the Marmaris sea one way and the Blue Mosque in the other direction. It was a win win on what side of the table to sit on. Also, this breakfast had food that no other Turkish breakfast had. They had little chocolate somethings. They had dried apricots. They had sausage, that I am pretty sure was just hot dogs. They had TWO types of cheese instead of one. It was good. I ate. Then, I ate again.

New Mosque along the river.

I don't know where this cat got its self control from. It never reached in the box to take the fisherman's bait.

Our plan for the day was to head across the river to the Golden Horn and modern Istanbul. I loved it. Within a couple minutes of crossing the river, we left the main tourist crowds behind, which left the touts behind. Oh man, what a breath of fresh air to be walking around without them. It was great to get a very small look at where locals spend their time instead of just chugging along the tourist trail. That small look was going to get a little bigger later in the day because we were going to having dinner with my high school soccer teammate, Daglar. He went to school with me in the States, but he was born in Turkey and had moved back there to work with his dad after college.

An overlook of Sultanahmet from Galati Tower.

Panaroma from the Galati Tower, Istanbul, Turkey

On our way over to Istiklal Street and the Beyoglu neighborhood, we took a ride to the top of the Galati Tower to get a better look around the city. You can eat up there, but I am glad we didn't. You would get a window seat, but you would spend most of your time looking at other tourist's backs who were outside the restaurant. It was pretty crowded in the viewing area so I wonder if those people ever got to see anything out the window.

Istiklal Street.

After a long stroll around living Istanbul that we loved, it was time to return to our tourist roots. We split up to shop and explore. I headed to the Egyptian (spice) bazaar. Almost every store had the exact same spices. A few had dried fruit. I assume the quality varied, but I am too much of a laymen to appreciate the difference. I was told to keep my eye out for Spanish saffron, but it cost $84/kg. That was usually three or four times what every other spice cost. Eeek! I looked at picking up a few as gifts. I wasn't sure if clearing US customs would be an issue, but the whole idea got nixed when I recognized every spice except two (and those two I know a friend had just bought in California anyway). I would have bought spices that were only commonly available in the region, but I didn't see any. I guess our world economy has given us access to most spices, the region of the world just decides how much they use them.

The Egyptian bazaar or spice market.

The tea servers are amazing as they weave through traffic to make their deliveries.

Tangent. While walking around the city, I found my way into the Grand Bazaar again. It is such an overwhelming place. So many people. So many voices asking to buy. While in there, I saw women wearing burkas who had these crazy sunglasses on. I guess while they were restricted in some ways, they were expressing themselves the way they can. It was also interesting to see a group of women in burkas around a dress shop looking in the window. I've heard they also express themselves freely and in fun ways under the burkas, but I can't imagine them wearing a full dress underneath. Do they have opportunities to wear these dresses out and about, just around the house, or were they just curious what it would be like? I was once told that when planes fly out of Saudi Arabia the pilot will announce when they leave Saudi air space and then the women in burkas will line up at the bathroom door to change and the alcohol cart will come out. Maybe this is the same thing, but I think in Saudi Arabia wearing the burka is part of the law. In Turkey, it is a choice, at least legally.

A Grand Bazaar shop.

After too much time in shopping areas buying nothing, it was time to head to the hamman for the legendary Turkish bath. I had already had one in Dalyan, but wanted to try one in Istanbul's famous bathhouses. The entry looked like another storefront that had a metal grate, but once you got inside it was a beautiful tiered wooden building. The actual bathing area was similar to the last one I was in, a domed ceiling with holes in it and a central marble slab to lay on. The scrub down was similar too except the guy pushed a lot harder so that bones hurt from being jammed into the marble. The massage was very different, but still odd. First up, only girls could get anything but the basic oil massage. I was bummed. I had hoped for a sports massage. The massages are all done in a small side room. The tables are close enough that I would have had no problem grabbing the calf of the guy who was perpendicularly next to me. It was more of a flushing massage than a relaxing one. They did a few odd things. The pushed individual fingers deep into the calf. It hurt. They rubbed the sides of the Achilles. Reina said her massage was terrible too. They didn't push hard. When you are done with the massage, you can soak more or leave. If you leave, you can't go out of the bathing area with a wet towel. If they give you a finishing towel, you are done. It is apparently a big deal. If you go back in to the bathing area, they get grumpy. I thought I could come and go from the seating area to the bathing area. No dice.

Çemberlitas Bath

After bathing, we had an hour or two to pass before meeting Daglar. I checked out Rick Steves' guidebook who gave a sights summary and ranked them by checkmarks. In our wanderings, we had seen everything highly ranked except the 1400 year old Basilica Cistern. I had not heard of it, but we figured we would sneak in before they closed. It turned out to possibly be our best tourist stop in Istanbul. Maybe it is tied with the Blue Mosque. It is an underground water chamber that I am not clear if it used to be a basilica or if it was just built underneath one. Either way, it was great, but kind of interesting to think that without the great mood lighting, it probably would not be quite as cool. The columns rise up from the fish filled water and are all pretty much the same, except for two that have the head of Medusa at their base. No one is quite sure why they are there and on their side. As we were getting booted out, they were setting up for a dinner party. That would be a great space for it.

Basilica Cistern columns.

One of two Medusa heads in the Basilica Cistern.

After a long, tiring day, it was time to meet Daglar. He was having a dinner party. He got distracted and was unable to pick us up so he sent his driver over to get us . . . I was suddenly very concerned that my very worn in backpacker attire was not going to cut it for this dinner party. I had no idea what has become of Daglar so I wasn't really sure what to make of it. Oh well, I didn't have any other clothes and I had been scrubbed clean by another man. I was as good as I was going to get.

I need not have worried. It was a small gathering of Daglar and his wife's friends. I am overwhelmed at the hospitality that Daglar extended us. From having us picked up, to feeding us, being a gentleman, to offering to help out with my ATM card issues, he was over the top. He was brilliant. I have not seen him in fifteen years and I can only dream of being as welcoming as he was. It was really neat to see the old Daglar infused with grown up and businessman Daglar. This is the second time I have reconnected with an old friend after 15 years in the past few months and both have been spectacular. I unplugged from my hometown because my parents divorced when I graduated high school and both left town. After that, I pretty much stayed at college. It might be time to get back in touch with more of my roots.

Obelisk of Theodosius

After way too short of a time with Daglar and way too long of a night, it was time to head home. Reina had a flight to catch in the morning and I would see Daglar at brunch. My breakfast table the next morning after Reina left was even better that the first morning. I found a level above where we were eating to see the city from. After a quiet morning, Daglar took me to the Bosphorus area for brunch. The Starbucks in that area is rumored to have the best view of any Starbucks in the world. We had a very American brunch. There were four of us there with three iPhones on the table ready for any important calls. There was a little alcohol and a lot of yummy food, especially the pancakes. These were American pancakes, not the thinner crepe like ones normally found in Turkey. At brunch, Daglar's friends invited me to join them if I was going to hang around. They were going to the Scorpion's last concert. I thought that happened over a decade ago. Winds of Change in Russian. Fond memories.

Twice on the rides in Daglar's car, I fell asleep and the driver discreetly raised my headrest to make it more comfortable. I have never realized that a headrest could make sure your neck didn't get sore, let alone thought about how a driver could do things like that to be a better driver. Neat.

Random something on my bike ride to the bridge.

I decided it was time to move on. I had a great stay and did not want to push it or risk getting stuck like I almost did in Budapest. I had that looming schedule to keep and I still wanted to explore Cappadocia. I had always planned to train this section because it was so far, but I had been told that the bus was a lot more reliable and pleasant. It ended up being another overnight bus. The Turkish love their overnight buses. They aren't just for tourists. My bus would leave from the Asian side of Istanbul. There wasn't supposed to be much over there so we never actually made it over there to explore. I decided that riding up the Bosphorus, over the bridge to Asia and back down would let me explore and be better than taking the ferry across.

Ortakhoy restaurant

Tea, the national drink of Turkey.

I biked past where the ferry left and over to the Golden Horn that I loved so much and all the way up to the Ortakhoy neighborhood below the bridge. It was a great neighborhood that I would love to hang out in if I lived there. Lots of cute little restaurants, cafes, and hooka bars. I found one to eat at, had amazing ravioli, and then set off for the last kilometer to the bridge. I was stopped when I was almost there. Apparently, no pedestrians or bicycles are allowed on the bridge. As far as I know, there was no other bridge near by. I tried to catch a bus across, but they would not let me on with a bike. I suddenly found myself biking hard all the way back down the Bosphorus to get back to the ferry terminal that I had passed up four hours earlier. Grumble, grumble. The ferry was cheap. I made it with 30 minutes to spare and was even able to buy a ticket with my credit card despite what I was told by a ticket seller in the city (who didn't take credit card, but I believe was trying to get me to buy from him instead. That crap bugs me. Do tourists in the USA go through the lies like that? I hope not.). Onward.

Bus station chaos. You have to ask all the companies about their buses. There is no central ticketing agency.

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