Following three years of consecutive contracts teaching English in the Republic of Korea and due to circumstances that were forced upon me by the ever increasingly tight-fisted budget makers of my most recent employment, I was forced but also equally happy to take a two month vacation. I guess you could even call it a sabbatical. After spending most of my free time in the final few months at school organising my next contract and visa (and preparing lessons of course…) I found myself having very little time to prepare any travel plans. I found myself in the zone in between early flight deals and last-minute deals and chose to procrastinate on my itinerary. At the latest possible moment I booked a one way, multi stop flight to Istanbul, Turkey. After that we would see where the budget airlines would take me or if I would be brave enough to take a long distance train or bus. Following my experience with overnight busses in Vietnam you could say I was definitely more likely to put my trust in the hands of Mr Ryan Air.
On the 28th of June I left my apartment in Hadan, Busan (good riddance to the apartment!) and caught a flight from Busan to Bangkok, this was followed by a swift change onto a Doha bound flight which was followed by a less swift change (a 7 hour layover in Doha airport…which I would like to point out is not the most exciting airport) before boarding my final flight to Istanbul. Despite my brain being distinctly in the twilight zone I managed to successfully navigate my way to a boutique hotel that I had booked for a couple of nights to recover in. I took a heavenly shower to wash away the air condition induced tiredness of long haul flying and went on what I hoped would be a very short adventure to find some dinner. My hotel was finely situated in the back streets of Sultanahmet, the very heart of Istanbul’s historical area. Historical equals touristical and I found a street with too many dining choices to handle. Immediately kicking into budget mode I looked for somewhere cheap to eat. The street that annexes the metro was lined with restaurants but there were a few special ones that stood out. In these restaurants you could look before you ordered as the big open windows were filled with the treats of the day. I entered one and chose a huge pancake that was wrapped around some succulent lamb and veg with some rice and salad on the side. I could have ordered the whole window though. I stuffed myself for less than five English pounds and headed back to get my body some well-earned rest as the skies darkened and my stomach settled.
The very next day I woke refreshed and hungry. A breakfast of fresh fruit, cheeses, fresh bread and cured meats made my heart melt as I sat on the terrace that overlooked the Sea of Marmara from the European side. I began my day by exploring the outside of the Blue Mosque (I had shorts on so I couldn’t go inside) before heading across to the historically multi-purpose Hagia Sofia. The Hagia Sofia was a Greek orthodox church built-in the 6th century and it remained purposed as that until an Ottoman Turk conquered Istanbul in the 13th century and declared the building should be transformed into an Islamic Mosque. It stayed that way until the 1930’s before it was transformed into a museum. Inside you can see the building in both its religious guises as the iconic decorations in the church, which were plastered over by the muslim occupiers, have been revealed by archaeologists. The Hagia Sofia is notable for its massive dome roof and is considered a primary example of Byzantine architecture. It was also the world’s largest cathedral for over a thousand years. Guinness records would probably have been interested in it if they existed then.
After spending a significant amount of my morning in awe of the two hugely dominant buildings in Sultanahmet I went for a walk across the tranquil and relaxing Gulhane Park where people relaxed having picnics, playing little games of football and basking in the sun and headed towards the Beyoglu district via the Galata Bridge. As I walked across the Galata Bridge I had an amazing view of the Bosphorus River channel where it begins to meet the Sea of Marmara. From here you can see all the ferry boats taking off to take tourists up the river, you can peer across the expansive water to the Asian side of Turkey and you can watch all manners of people fishing along the bridge. The catch of the day appeared to be sprats.
As I hit the far shore I began a steady climb to the summit of Beyoglu district. The steep streets were lined with small independent shops and graffiti covered walls and at the very top I was presented with the Galata Tower. A dominant and sturdy turret that overlooks the whole peninsula. I skipped the over-priced journey to the top and enjoyed the views from a nearby elevated street. The atmosphere in the streets around the Galata Tower was very relaxed. People sat in streets in pairs or small groups drinking Turkish tea, smoking and chatting away in the Sunday lunchtime sun. I zig-zagged my way through the quiet back streets as cafes opened, waiters put out tables and chairs and grocers conducted their business. The streets were narrow and a distinct Turkish architectural style followed throughout the streets which was intermittently broken with urban art or slogans sprayed forcibly on the walls to support the recent protests in Istanbul.
The intriguing side streets eventually gave way to a heavy shopping district and I followed the main pathway to Taksim Square where only days before protesters had clashed repeatedly with police over the unconsulted redevelopment of Gezi Park and Taksim Square and the general disillusionment of the people with an increasingly hardline muslim government that was infringing upon the secular ideals of the Turkish constitution. Taksim was quiet when I arrived. A court injunction had been made to postpone redevelopments. A heavy police presence remained and most of the square and park were fenced off. A few heavy-duty JCB’s were parked around and even a few seemed to be doing some light work in the square. I didn’t feel entirely convinced that the peace would remain for very long.
Having skipped lunch I had a giant jacket potato with a stack of filling in a small diner and walked down the side of the hill and grabbed a tram back to Sultanahmet. I went for a run along the Sea of Marmara as the sun went down. People played football on an artificial pitch, had BBQ’s on the grass beside the rocky shore and walked their pets. Talking of pets I was beginning to note the prevalence of stray dogs and as I reached the halfway point of my run a pack of four or five aggressive dogs threatened to attack pedestrians at a crossing. I quickly zipped across the road to avoid the dogs and ran back to the hotel. In the evening I went to an English pub and had a cottage pie before getting caught in a brief thunderstorm and taking shelter with a Saudi guy who failed to convince my tired body to join him in a nightclub. Instead I gratefully accepted the calling of the warmth and comfort of my own hotel bed.
The next day I changed my accomodation to the more reasonably priced abode of a hostel. The hostel was really nice but empty as it had recently opened. In fact a had a room to myself for the entirety of my stay. That being said, the breakfast made by an aged and overweight Turkish lady was as good as it was at the hotel and the owners were very amicable. My room also had a fantastic sea view. Following my inability to get into the Blue Mosque because of my inappropriate leg wear I put on some trousers and took the short walk up the road via a small tourist market. It was getting towards the end of lunch prayers and tourists had to wait outside at this time. I sat on some steps and read my book as it threatened to rain until prayers were over. Inside the Blue Mosque it is simply decoreated on the floor but intricate and patterned above. The space is open and carpeted and a huge chandelier hangs from the impressive domed roof. In the prayer area men chatted or knelt in silence, occasionally bowing to the ground. A separate closed off area was available for women to pray. I took a few photos but felt a little like I was imposing on people’s privacy as it was obviously an important and busy part of the muslim community as well as being a tourist attraction, instead I took some time just to people watch and take in the atmosphere of a religion that so many western people treat with suspicion and in realty have very little knowledge about. There were plenty of signs suggesting to find elders and ask them questions but I didn’t feel like a lecture on my Islam on my holiday. Being there and appreciating the purpose and activities of the people was more than enough.
In the afternoon I splashed out and paid for admittance to Topkapi Palace. Topkapi Palace sits elevated above the rest of Sultanahmet above the gentle slopes of Gulhane Park. The palace was the home to the Ottoman Sultans for almost four hundred years and comprises of many buildings and courtyards that were developed and continually improved uponduring the Ottoman reign. The crowds at the palace were incredible and it was quite difficult to imagine life there while some screaming child caused a fuss in the numerous queues that I continually got caught in. People queued and crowded around the rooms that had been used to hold the treasures of the Ottoman period but I quickly found these boring. You can only look at so many shiny swords and helmets before you’ve seen them all. The part I enjoyed the most was at the rear of the palace where there were less crowds and you could see rooms and gardens that had been kept in the style that they would have been used during everyday use by the tenants. The ceramic tiled patterns on the walls were quite unique and refreshing. Later that evening I found a great little street restaurant and enjoyed an Alinazik kebab and thought about all the places where I had already been over the first few days of my travels, my legs were definitely already feeling the increased level of walking!
Since I had arrived in Istanbul I had been pretty insular. I was tired from all the travel on the planes and generally from having worked the last semester in Korea. My motivation to be sociable had been minimal and in all honesty I’m quite comfortable, and often prefer, doing things on my own and at my own pace. However, on this day I had made plans with someone from couchsurfing to hangout with in Istanbul. Ezgi lives in Besiktas in Istanbul and is an English teacher at Istanbul Technical University. I met her on one of her days off during her light summer school schedule. Ezgi took me around the streets of the affluent area of Besiktas and we stopped off to do a few errands she had to complete and visited her university. She showed me the streets where the housewives of Besiktas had clattered their pans in the windows in support of the protesters and talked about her involvement in the protests and how she hoped they would continue and be successful in their cause. It is quite special and humbling to meet someone who not only passionately believes in a cause or stance but also acts upon her beliefs and stands at the forefront of those efforts. We ate Turkish ice cream at a famous place in Besiktas but we didn’t leave a tip as they hadn’t provided shelter to protesters when the protests had been at their most violent (Showing they were either too worried about repercussions or were supporters of the vilified Prime Minister Erdogan!). She also showed me a shrine that had been created in the name of the two people who at that point had been killed by the overly brutal reaction of the police to the protests. A chilling reminder of the price some people pay to stand up for the rights of themselves and others. On a lighter side t was near here that I had my best Turkish kebab ever. It was simply made with fresh bread, tomato and lettuce but with quality doner meat, not that terrible fatty stuff you find at 2 a.m. on the streets of Britain. I had some goat yoghurt milk to wash my doner treat down. Lets say the milk is more of an acquired taste… As the afternoon wore on we went to Bebek, an area famous for riverside views of the Bosphorus Strait and popular nightclubs and bars. It would have been nice to stay and have some drinks but we both had separate plans for the evening. Ezgi had another protest to attend and I had tickets for the Under 20 World Cup!
I got in a taxi and asked to be taken to the Ali Sami Yen stadium. Ezgi had told me it was being taken apart but my ticket research had clearly said the Ali Sami Yen stadium. Refusing to believe I was wrong the taxi driver took me to the Ali Sami Yen stadium….or what was left of it. Puzzled at both my own stubbornness and lack of stadium I stole some wi-fi signal and discovered that Galatasaray FC had also christened their new stadium with the same name. Jumping in my second taxi and spending more money than I had on three nights of accomodation at the hostel I finally arrived at the new and correct stadium! I was almost denied entry at the security gate when my hostel key fob (a mini bronze lighthouse) was mistaken as a potential weapon but I convinced the security guard that not only was I not a hooligan but also neither of the four nationalities that were involved in tonight’s two games in the round of the last 16. Having purchased my ticket I took my seat shortly after the kick off between Spain and Mexico.
Spain vs Mexico was a game that typified many contests between clear favourites and underdogs. Mexico started brightly but as the game went on and as the score continued to remain goalless they got sucked deeper and deeper until the number of crosses and corners from the Spanish team took its toll and the Spanish centre back buried a volley from a corner. Mexico started to look more sprightly on the break but exposed themselves at the back pushing forwards and the skillful number 10 slotted home with a small deflection to make it 2-0 and game over.
The first game had lacked atmosphere with support for both teams being minimal. The second contest was much more eventful and both teams had a significant following. The Nigerian contingent was quite superb and really gave the modern, but only quarter full stadium, a lively atmosphere. Realising this passion the contingent of Turkish and neutral observers soon got on the Nigerian bandwagon, possibly assisted by the Uruguayans reputation as being quite a villainous team in recent years. The game began and was quite scrappy at first with some questionable challenges from the team in sky blue resulting in a few yellow cards for team Uruguay. It was however the over zealous Nigerian right back who really overstepped the mark of decency by two footing a winger who in all honesty had offered little to no threat. Nailed on red card. The Nigerian coach went berserk as if he had just witnessed the greatest sporting injustice since Suarez’s handball against Ghana, but he could have no complaints in reality. Uruguay took the lead shortly afterwards from a bundled-in goal. After the break however the Nigerians came out revitalized and took the game to Uruguay. The Nigerian number 9 went on a rampaging run down the heart of the pitch and buried an absolutely exquisitely crafted curling shot into the top corner. The game was decided by some more rashness on the part of the Nigerian keeper who ran out along his own by-line, missed his tackle and then, as the Uruguayan striker skipped past him, stuck out his hand to grab the ball but only succeeded in tripping the striker. Huge boos rang around the stadium as the number 11 lined up his penalty kick but he successfully sent the sheepish keeper the wrong way. Nigeria had a flurry of great late chances but failed to find an equalizer. Uruguay progressed to only the satisfaction of Uruguay but I had a thoroughly good evening watching the future talent of world football.
My time in Istanbul was coming to a close. I took my last day quite slowly. I had a lazy lie-in and then went to Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar. The ancient indoor shopping experience is not to be missed and the bustle of trades people and tourists is quite unique. Football flags litter the ceilings showing the allegiance of shop owners to teams like Galatasaray, Fenerbache and Besiktas. I had worn a Spurs shirt and many of the locals muttered the name of my club as I walked past or asked me who my favourite player was or shouted out names of players they knew. I had another delicious lunch of slow cooked pork meat in a fresh pita in the back streets of the Bazaar before heading off to Istanbul Modern, a modern art museum on the shores of the Bosphorus. The exhibitions were quite unique and the art work was moving and in some cases unbelievable such as this piece by Ramazan Bayrakoglu called ‘Fire’. Like MOCA in Taipei I would definitely recommend a visit to the Istanbul Modern. In the evening I took a walk by the sea, watched a small football game (that didn’t quite reach the heights of the previous evening) and walked the back streets of Sultanahmet that contained a district of shoe makers and some rather surprised locals who didn’t expect to see a tourist straying so far from the usual highlights. I had one last amazing meal before heading to the hostel and preparing to fly the following morning to Cyprus.