Well we arrived in Istanbul (with a shocking 10.8kg backpack on my back--how did I manage to pack so light??) and day one of our current adventure has come and gone...and what a day it was!
We arrived in Istanbul just after 5am but because of the time difference, this only allowed us to sleep on the plane for about 3 hours so needless to say, we were pretty exhausted!! We made our way to the Kodakoy area (pronounced KodaCUEy--there is an accent above the "o" which I can't input) which is on the Asia side of Istanbul and we met with our host for some breakfast. We tried the traditional tea (called chai) which to me tastes like regular black tea (maybe a touch stronger) and is served in these lovely glasses that look like a large shot glass or mini tulip glass! I couldn't believe my eyes at the sight of this tea everywhere we went today. Believe it or not-it seems more of a tea culture than in England! But I will talk more about that later!
Following breakfast and tea we rode a little shuttle bus to our host's apartment. These shuttle busses are something else, very rickety and they pick you up and drop you off wherever you want along the route--no need for bus stops! You just flag it down when you see one and when you want to get off just tell or yell at the bus driver and he will pull over and let you off. They are very small, maybe with ten seats and some standing space. The drivers honk like crazy cause they try to get as many people as they can on these buses (apparently the name for them translates to something like "pack them in") because this means more money for them. So although the honking may give you a headache after a while, the advantage to these shuttles is that they wait for you even if you are a block or two away and running for it because it means more Turkish Lyra in their pocket! So that is nice to know that they won't drive away because they are not on schedule like the drivers do in some cities (ahemVancouver).
Our host Khalid's place is very nice! With a massive pool! But unfortunately the weather is not right for it at the moment. The thing Perry and I love most though is that it is in what seems like the least touristy place of Istanbul! There are NO tourists here. The neighborhood/area is called Unalan, in the municipality of Uskadar and when Perry and I took the shuttle back into Kodakoy after a power nap, the lack of tourists became very evident when all eyes were on us!
We came from below zero temperatures in the UK to around 15 degrees and sunny in Istanbul so it really felt like summer to us. We were HOT, so I wore sandals and a light cardigan! Well when we got on the bus I noticed all eyes on my light cardigan and sandals and I looked around and realized that every passenger had a winter coat on and many even boots!! The man sitting next to me said "As soon as you get on bus I think to myself 'she English, she English!" Everybody on the shuttle was smiling and/or laughing. I explained that it felt like summer to us and we were very warm. It seemed like every new passenger that climbed on the shuttle, he would point out my shoes to them! Needless to say, I felt like an Australian in Vancouver (you know, the ones that wear their thong sandals in December which always makes me ask if they are crazyyyy). I felt the stares all.day.looooong! I would catch people's eyes drift directly to my feet. I almost bought a new pair of shoes cause I was standing out so much. And no I wasn't being paranoid, Perry noticed it too!!! I asked some girls to take a photo of us and they were even pointing and laughing at my feet! I guess it's karma for thinking that Australians are crazy for wearing thong sandals in winter weather in Vancouver!!
We took a ferry to the European side and as soon as we got off (well actually even from the ferry ride), I was snap happy with my camera.
The area where the ferry dropped us off, I believe it is called Eminonu, had so much going on, and again, barely any tourists so it provided a glimpse into the life of the locals. There were these little boats along the waterfront and on each of these boats were 2-6 men making fish sandwiches and in front of the boats was ample seating space that had tons of people sitting and eating these fish sandwiches (called Balik Ekmek). There were also stands that were making these little donut balls and corn on the cob and chestnuts, and then there were these drinks that everybody had in their hands that had pickles and onions sticking out of them. The color of the liquid was a pinkish red and we had no idea what it was. I am determined to find out though and may even try one today. We loved seeing all the locals sitting on these very low stools (which looked like mini barrels) and eating their fish sandwiches and drinking their red drink with pickles. It seemed like a real local thing to do so we said we would give it a try later.
Right around the corner there was a bridge with all these men (we even saw a women) fishing. There must have been 30-50 of them on both sides of the bridge and they were catching anything from small smelt-like fishes to some bigger trout size ones. They all had a bucket or bowl with water that they were putting their catches in and a lot of the fishes were still alive and breathing and some even swimming around. The fisherman were all socializing, children running around, and there was an older woman with a garbage bag full of water that was going up and down the bridge selling it to the fisherman. It seemed like a real social thing for them as well as a money maker. Perry and I looked in the water and there seemed to be tons of jelly fish in there too!!
Just accross the street, there was a beautiful mosque right next to a spice bazaar. We wandered through the bazaar where we tried Turkish Delight and I snapped so many photos because the colors of the spices and teas were so beautiful! Some of the cafes in the market would carry trays of the traditional tea through the market and sell it to the merchants. Again, what I loved about this market is that we barely saw any tourists, unless they were Turkish tourists. I guess it is not high season but we really seemed to stand out. We then wandered through the neighboring streets and alleyways with merchants selling anything from pots and pans, to tobacco, to cheese, to scarves and linens...pretty much anything and everything. There were also tons of foodie stalls and all we wanted to do was try all the different foods but we managed to resist the delicacies as we weren't even hungry.
This area of Eminonu was such a great place to people watch and catch a glimpse of the rich culture of the local people. We could have walked around for hours but it was time to find some touristy attractions!
We made our way to what was evidently the tourist area: where Haghia Sophia and the Blue Mosque are. We only viewed the Haghia Sophia from the outside because it was half an hour til closing time (we will return though) but we were fortunate enough to go inside the Blue Mosque. Now let me tell you, this place is unbelievable. Such beautiful architecture and the designs on the walls inside are just something else. Again, I couldn't help but snap snap snap snap away! We were in there for quite some time and it was running into one of the call to prayers. One of the security guards welcomed us to sit down if we liked and to observe it. Of course we didn't pass up on this. It was such an amazing experience! The men are all at the front of the mosque and the women all at the back. It seemed like the worshippers came and went as they pleased and some mobile phones went off a few times! Luckily it wasn't any of ours, but it seemed quite informal in regards to the atmosphere of it (people talking, mobiles going off, kids running around, even the fact that they allowed tourists to sit and watch) but I guess its because it is such a famous mosque. I believe some mosques don't allow visitors at all during the call to prayer so those may seem a bit more formal/strict. But formal or informal, the chanting is just so hauntingly beautiful in each of the mosques. Perry and I even agreed that we would put something like that on our iPods!
When we left the Blue Mosque it was dark out and it was great to see this mosque all lit up. Stunning architecture as mentioned. We made our way back to the area where the ferry departs and treated ourselves to one of the fish sandwiches we observed all the locals eating earlier. Perry loved his but unfortunately mine was full of bones and some grissle and wasn't too pleasant to eat. I still managed to eat most of it but most of the time was spent picking the bones out of my mouth!
We then got back on the ferry towards Kadikoy. As soon as you get on the ferry, a waiter goes around with a tray of tea and offers it to the passengers. It seems like everybody, and I mean everybody that gets on the ferry buys one of these teas so we did as the locals do and bought us some tea. As mentioned, the tea culture seems really big here. We saw people drinking this tea everywhere, from the merchants in the bazaar and alleyways to the passengers in the ferry. And it is always served in what looks like a mini tulip style glass (or extra large shot glass). I would love a set of these to have in our future home but the downside is we are backpacking and can't fit trinkets like these in our luggage. I am still tempted to purchase some though and post them back.
Following the ferry, we had a shuttle ride back to Unalan to our host's apartment. As soon as we got off the shuttle by his building, there were locals having a celebration in the street with a sound system set up and lots of dancing going on. We watched for a bit, and thought about how lucky we are to have the opportunity to stay in a neighborhood with no tourists and be witnessing this rich culture.
We returned to Khalid's apartment, had a nice conversation with him, while observing fireworks from the area that the celebration was going on and then we retired to bed to get some rest and prepare ourselves for a day of sightseeing the following day.
And that brings us to now, day 2, on a ferry heading back to Eminonu and ready to witness some more of the rich culture and stunning architecture that is so prominent here in Istanbul. And ready to try some more delicacies! Maybe I will be lucky to find a fish sandwich without bones in it!