Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Istanbul Short Trip: Tourist Highlights and Common Life

Istanbul's Trademark Blue Mosque

Last week (March 22-25, 2018) I got the opportunity to visit Istanbul for the first time. It was a short trip and work related but got some time to scratch the surface.

I found Istanbul not only loaded with historical treasures but it was also full of life. The metropolitan has something to offer to everyone. Cleanliness was the first thing that struck me. Public transport looked effective and modern with an interesting variety; from slow moving minibuses to faster metro system. Enjoyed the language barrier since English is barely understood and I was not familiar with the Turkish accent despite sharing vocabulary with my mother tongue Urdu. People usually are confident looking and friendly but do not smile without a reason! Overall it was fun and increased my curiosity to explore Turkey in detail.

Weather was a bit colder than expected, below 10C with strong windchill, uncomfortable initially even for colleagues who were from Islamabad. It got better every passing day and then we acclimatized a bit. Trees reflected full autumn but plants and grass were hinting the spring onset. Not bad, I would say. People who visited just last week reported it was nice with 20C maximum, so it keeps changing. In fact, I would recommend late March, April is better, to avoid heat and tourist influx.

Tourist Sites: Topkapi Museum, Bosporus Cruise, Grand Bazaar, Hazrat Abu Ayub Tomb, and Rip-Off

As I mentioned, the trip was meant for work, and in the gaps between meetings we felt lucky to be offered city tours to Topkapi Palace Museum, Bosporus Cruise, Grand Bazaar, Tomb and Mosque of Hazrat Abu Ayub Ansari, and obviously to the rip-off Turkish Delight shop.

Topkapi Museum was impressive with magnificent exterior and prized collection especially from the Islamic history - so shall not be missed. Most important were things associated with Prophet Muhammad SA; footprint, mantle, hair, broken tooth in Uhud, swords, etc. Some relics were easily visible while others were not easy to see due to the dim light especially the hair, which attracted most visitors. Belongings of Sahaba were also showcased among which swords were most visible. Relics of earlier Prophets were displayed which might not be necessarily authentic.

Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia are elaborate structures, too big to be missed, located around Topkapi but we could only see them from outside due to shortage of time and since renovation was in progress. 

Tip: if you plan to visit these places, make sure you reach there early in the day. Topkapi Museum closed at 4pm and we were just in time, courtesy our active guide who even made us run to catch up! Those who were late missed that despite putting a Pakistani style protest.

Bosporus Cruise was a combination of laid back sea ride, some good food especially salad and cheese, and dance performances of a local troupe including the famous belly dancing. It would be more fun on the deck due to nigh time views but the freezing wind only allowed short stay. Since paid by the Company so it was enjoyable, otherwise I would have rather avoided that!

The next day, our guide, another person, first took us to an overpriced sweet shop surely for his own profits before taking us to a historical site.

Mosque and Tomb of Hazrat Abu Ayub Ansari RA has a very special mention in Istanbul's history. Although the exact location of his grave may be debated in the historical context but it is well documented that he was part of the early Muslim contingents who reached Istanbul, then Constantinople, as early as first century Hijri. 

To our luck, Asar Jamaat (prayer congregation) was ready and we had exact time for ablution to join the Imam. 

After Namaaz, a young Turkish boy approached me asking if I were from Pakistan in broken Urdu. It was a pleasant surprise, off course. The guy spent some time in Karachi as well.

We were also hoarded to Grand Bazaar, a huge covered market full of traditional artifacts and Chinese tourists. Most of the merchandise was colorful and artistic but especially made for money spending tourists so it was not my cup of tea. Instead I resorted to a cup of Turkish Tea and that too at the expense of an equally bored colleague since I had to yet convert the currency! 

To be noted: the Bazaar closed at 7pm.

Topkapi Palace Gate
Entering into Topkapi Palace Museum
Inside Topkapi Museum: Casing of Hajre Aswad
Topkapi Manuscript: Attributed to Hazrat Usman RA.
Very Interesting: Quran Telawat Continues in Topkapi Museum Uninterrupted for last 400 Years 24 Hours a Day!
Inside of One of Topkapi Museums Domes
Persian Poetry in Turkish Topkapi Palace
Ottomon Style Arches in Topkapi Palace Resemble Those in Madina
Inside Topkapi Palace: Minarets, Dome, Red Bricks, Arches, and Greenery!
Haram Enterance in Topkapi Palace
Hagia Sofia: Will Explore from the Inside Next Tiime
A View from Bosporus Night Cruise
Mosque of Hazrat Abu Ayub Ansari Tomb RA
Graveyard around Hazrat Abu Ayub Mosque and Tomb
The Aged Old Grand Bazaar of Istanbul
Grand Bazaar of Istanbul is a Huge Covered Market and Loaded with Tourist Souvenirs
Classic Turkish Stuff in Grand Bazaar - Didn't Dare Buy Though
Grand Bazaar is a Good Place to Buy Colorful Overpriced Spices!
Common Life and Authentic Experiences: Taksim Square, Istiklal Street, Old Town Walk, Minibus, Food, and Meeting a Local

After a 'touristy tour', a colleague and I ditched the group and wandered around the hustling and bustling Istiklal Street which adjoins Taksim Square. The ambiance around Istiklal Street was exactly what I was looking for: authentic and cheerful. The place is ideal to spend a carefree evening. Though we did not try food, only had tea and coffee, but there were many options and customers mostly looked local rather than tourists and their guides.

Mobile Phone Drama

Istiklal Street is notorious for Tourist Traps and Scams. We were frequently targeted by touts for various stuff which we politely refused and kept the focus on walking around. During that, my colleague observed that he was no more able to capture photos since his mobile was not there in his pocket! We thought it was pickpocketed and cursed one of the touts who was too persistent. One last hope was the place where we had tea, and to our disbelief, the waiter was waiting for us and gave the mobile phone back. He also tried calling people on the phone list to give heads up including colleague's wife. So rest assured, good people still exist and could be found on the street as well!

Little Gujrat

During the walk, we met a young chap who was working at a shop and belonged to Gujrat (located in Pakistani Punjab and not the Indian one). The guy was earning 1,200 Turkish Lira out of which he had to pay 900 to his owner for accommodation. He was obviously unhappy and now wanted to go to Yunaan (Greece) really badly. He told me that he had already made 11 unsuccessful attempt through dinghy and was preparing for the next. He asked me curiously if I'm visiting on a "visa"! Our famous Gujrat politicians, in collaboration with government and military officials, exported so many workers, legal or illegal, that now every major city enroute to Europe has its own Little Gujrat. Time will come when these Little Gujrat will be famous travel destinations on the lines of Little India and Little China! (Pun intended)

With our mobile back in addition to our nerves, I searched around for better currency rates, which was getting worse every passing hour of the evening and the deeper we got into Istiklal Street. During the day, I noted the rate on a roadside shop: it was 1 USD = 3.95. But at Grand Bazaar and at Istiklal Street it was as bad as 3.80! Finally I negotiated and got 3.93 out of Istiklal and on the main road. It was good achievement considering it was already midnight. Then we took the taxi and made it back to hotel for 30 Lira: Taksim Square to Bayram Pasha (8 km).

Old Town Walk: Inside Roman Walls and Golden Horn

Previous day, I made use of a couple of free hours between the meetings and walked all the way to old town: Balat neighborhood which is located inside the Roman Walls near the part of the sea called Golden Horn. In total it was around 10 km walk both ways and was a good way to explore authentic Istanbul. (Please see below photos).

Thanks to Couch Surfing, I got in touch with 2 locals, Cagatay and Busra, who virtually guided me to the above walk and responded to my impatient queries. I wanted to meet them and luckily Busra was available on Sunday.

So on the last day (Sunday), after grabbing some packets of Turkish Tea, Coffee, and Chocolate from a nearby Carrefour (only due to  the time constraint otherwise I prefer local shops) and dodging a gang of dogs with the help of a passing by local, I collected my luggage and headed to Bakirkoy neighborhood which Busra suggested as a meeting point due to its proximity to the airport.

The Minibus Adventure

First I thought of grabbing a taxi and negotiated one for 20 Lira, from Bayrampasa to Bakirkoy, but then my inner traveler forced me to try the public transport. 

It was not easy without local support and internet but still I made a couple of failed attempts, including getting down and up the stairs with all the luggage. First challenge was to know which metro/bus to get into. In the meantime, I kept trying to communicate with locals on the road and except for a girl nobody could understand me. There were 2 young guys who wanted to help me and looked genuine but they wanted me to get down the stairs once again which I did not want to. What I could decipher they were willing to swipe their metro card for USD 2! 

Finally, my luck saw an empty minibus on the road with Bakirkoy written on the windscreen board. So I hopped on.

I tried talking to the friendly minibus driver, named Sardar, who did not know any English, off course, and I could not do any Turk, but we could both understand Bakirkoy! From hand gesture I could gather that the fare is 2 Lira+. He was a nice person but not that nice to allow me an extra seat for the luggage without charging, I preferred saving. Sardar was happy to know that I am from Pakistan and wished to see a Pakistani currency note. I gifted him a 10 Rupees note which he kept with a lot of hesitation and me insisting hard.

Getting Lost

The bus roamed around local neighborhoods and filled up soon. Some people had to stand even. Without the internet I could only see the bus on the map through built in GPS. No internet meant no Whatsapp so how would I contact the person I was going to meet? Till then the guy standing behind me found a seat. While interrupting his mobile game, I asked if he could speak English and that I need some help. 

He agreed with a smile and introduced himself as 'Muharram'! I double checked if it is same as the name of the month, as in Ramzan, and nodded yes with even a bigger happier smile. Muharram also helped me in disembarking on the right spot but could not find the exact location with me toeing the luggage too and fro. 

I thanked him and said goodbye.

There was a doner shop around, in front of Burger King, where I asked for the wifi password from the waiter and made it to Cafe Bistro, the meeting point, after getting lost again and seeking help from passersby. Getting lost and finding it has its own fun!

Busra welcomed me in the nice aesthetically set cafe with a well set interior and a good library. She introduced me with the owner cum manager, an old Turkish lady wearing colorful jacket. The lady was happy to know where I am from and sent Salaam to Pakistan when I was leaving!

At the cafe I had Turkish coffee, second dose of the day, while Busra was having tea in the traditional style pouring it from the transparent kettle, or something, in her cup.

We had a good one hour chat about traveling, life in our countries, and some politics, especially about the future of Turkey. Busra was well traveled and a balanced personality with great real life experiences. Since she was into hiking, I introduced her to Pakistan, especially Islamabad and Northern mountains. 

I wanted to try Turkish Doner Kebab so we had it coincidentally from the same restaurant I borrowed the internet password, and then I left for the airport in the taxi (30 Lira).

Istanbul's Taksim Square: Lively and Authentic
Istiklal Street near Taksim Square: Vibrant and Diverse
Tram at Istiklal Street
A Sweet Shop at Istiklal Proud of its History
Rest Assured I Could Not Buy Any -P
A Young Boy Buying Mussels - a Popular Street Food in Istanbul
Wanted to But Could Not Try Popular Mussels
A Doner Shop on Istiklal: It Was Beef at Most Places While I was Hoping for Lamb
A Tea Shop around an Istiklal Alley
Seafood Market Around Istiklal
Fruit Shop around Istiklal
Traditional Clothes Around Istiklal
One of the Lively Istiklal Alleys
Istiklal's Night Life
A Corn Stall in Istanbul's Historical Center
Typical Istanbul Roadside Cart
Typical Turkish Tea - Different from What We Have Here in Pakistan. Brought Some So You Are Most Welcome!
This Old Town Tea Had the Nice Ambiance
Small One But Colorful and Frequented by Locals
Türk Kahvesi or Turkish Coffee
Shoes from China in Istanbul!
Yes You Can Find These Easily Especially Aorund Tourist Sites - But No Muslim Shower But There is Another Workable 'System'!
Walking Towards Istanbul Old Town
Walking Inside Istanbul's Roman Walls
Part of Roman Wall in Istanbul Old Town
Typical Old Town Alley and a Typical Istanbul Store
Mosque in Old Town
Wooden First Floor of a House in the Old Town
Playground in Old Town Neighborhood
Old Town Art 
Slopes and Curves of Old Town Istanbul
Spot the Lady Cleaning the Window of Her Flat - No Suprise Istanbul is a Clean City! (Pardon for the Privacy Breach)
Walked Around 10 km All the Way to Golden Horn (Sea) Visible in the Background - You Have Already Noted the Laundry Line!
Outside the Old Walls
Public Transport in Istanbul Has Many Forms
Traffic Lights Trail
Traffic Jam in Istanbul
Common Men's Graves
Shopping Mall with Brands and Carrefour
Bayram Pasha Metro Station
While Morning Walk These Dogs Gave me Tough Time, a Local Rescued Me, Luckily on the Way Back They Did not Bother Much!
Rode the Minibus from Bayram Pasha to Bakir Koy - The Bus Roamed Around Neighborhoods Slowly and Filled up Fully - Driver and I Had the Language Barrier But He Was Nice Enough!
Had Turkish Doner Kebab in Bakirkoy Neighborhood with a Local (31 Lira for the above). Now I Realize That Turkish Doner Kebab is Popular Turkish Dish Outside Turkey!
Ready to Go Back to Karachi!