Mosques and Madness in Istanbul

So, Istanbul (and Turkey as a whole!) wasn’t a place that either of us were ever particularly interested in visiting. The only experiences of Turkey either of us have had were of Kebabs (Rich) and shall we say slightly ‘leery’ Turkish men (me). But hey, we are on this trip to broaden our minds so were willing to give it a chance!

Crossing to border from Bulgaria was an interesting experience. We were told to expect delays of up to four hours as the Turkish got their act together as we had to first of all get our visas (£10 or €15) then go through passport control, then possibly wait for the bus to get searched. It was absolutely scorching on the bus but thankfully it all went a lot smoother than we had expected. Yes there was a bit of waiting around but I think the whole process only took around two hours before we were through!

When we got to Istanbul we headed for a small-ish area called Sultanahmet. This is where our hostel was (The Orient Hostel) and is also home to the famous Blue Mosque. After dumping our bags in the dorms (girls in one, boys in another) we went for a walk around to get our bearings. That night were heard the Mosques calling for prayer for the first time. WOW. That really is a sound to behold. There are three Mosques in the vicinity (including the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia – the largest) and they all take turns to compete with eachother, calling out the greatness of Allah. It goes on for quite a while and can be heard from all around. It’s quite an eerie thing to listen to (especially at quarter to 5 in the morning when you’re not quite awake and it’s pitch black) but it is also totally mesmerising. The hostel had a roof top terrace that you could sit on and hear all the mosques from every angle. It was fantastic and like nothing we’d ever experienced. Can’t wait until we get to Iran where the number of mosques will treble!

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Sleeping that night was almost impossible because of the heat – Turkey is the first country we’ve arrived in where we have found the heat almost unbearable. Even worse for me and the rest of the girls as at this stage we need to start dressing more conservatively so that we’re not seen to be offending the increasingly Muslim population of Istanbul. Wearing long trousers in 30 + degree heat is not fun. The dorm rooms didn’t have any air conditioning and the window hardly opened (not that it would have done much good) so we were all sweating buckets by the time we got up again. We’ll have to get used to it however as I’m told it could still get 20 degrees hotter in Iran and me and the rest of the girlies on the bus will have to be covered from head to toe!

The next morning (our first full day in Istanbul) we wanted to explore the rest of Sultanahmet. First thing on the list for Richard was to sample the famous Turkish cut-throat shave! Round the corner was a barbers and it said the word ‘shave’ on the window so in we went! The barber was sat there having his lunch so we waited for him to finish and agreed a price of 10 Turkish Lira. It was so funny watching him have it done. I don’t think Richard has ever experienced a quicker shave!

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He got slightly concerned when the barber shoved some pliers wrapped in cotton wool into a gas fire before holding it to his cheek – Those flames looked pretty scary! Haha.

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Last step in his shaving experience was to have his face and shoulders shoved into the sink and cold water thrown all over him. The look on his face was hilarious! Bet it woke him up though!

The rest of the day was spent visiting the sights nearby, namely the Grand Bazaar where we bought a head scarf for me and a long sleeved shirt. The head scarf was a bargain – some stalls wanted to charge us 40 lira but we got one in the end for 4.50 lira (about £2.25!). Very pleased with it. Now i’ve just got to figure out how to wear it properly!

The Grand Bazaar was massive – apparently there are about 22 different exits and entrances – and it was so easy to get lost! In the middle of its busiest time, the Mosque called again and half of the men from the stalls got up, covered up their goods with blankets or sheets and left! We spotted them round the corner (still inside the Bazaar) kneeling on their makeshift prayer mats (cardboard boxes!) – again, quite a sight.

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Once we were finished with the Bazaar we got on with our chosen ‘cliche’ – getting a Turkish Kebab! We decided to go to the cafe beneath the Hagia Sofia Mosque – and really wish we hadn’t! What a rip off! My Chicken Shish was lovely but there was nothing of it! Just a plate full of dodgy looking salad with a few bits of chicken in the middle. Richard’s Doner wasn’t lovely however – in fact, it was rank! Then the waiter tried to overcharge us by ‘accidently’ writing down the price for the most expensive kebab, then whacking a service charge on there that was thoroughly undeserved! The first of our trip cliches that went wrong…

We finished the day off with a walk to the Topkapi Palace and grounds then down to the Bosphorus River where we stood on the bridge and just watched open-mouthed at the chaotic Istanbul traffic for a bit!

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Istanbul is unique because it stretches across two continents – Asia and Europe. We thought that we would leave crossing over to the other side for tomorrow as once again we were knackered from all the walking.

Later that night everyone from the Oz Bus gathered on the roof terrace for drinks as we had a new person joining us!! Leighton went and got Joanna from the airport and was back around 10ish. We also had another reason to celebrate as Jana (remember our German Oz-buser?) had been left in Belgrade for three days due to an infected wound on her foot and had to stay in hospital, but she also returned to the group earlier in the evening!

Was a really good night – spurred on by the 500ml Turkish beers that just kept flowing, which I believe incited a few ‘deep & meaningfuls’ around the table! Also, for some reason half the group were wearing wigs and giant hats – there was also some dude in a chicken costume walking around – really random, but then this trip is starting to become pretty random!

The next day we both felt a little ropey. Not helped by the insane heat & stuffyness in the dorm rooms. Richard and I upgraded to a new room for just the two of us (with air con and a private bathroom) for the last night. Had a 7.30 start so really wanted a good nights sleep and a fresh, non-sticky start to the day!

Before even thinking of bed however, we still had our hop over to Asia to think about! We got a tram over the river and into the ‘big city’ side of Istanbul. From there we needed to head towards another massive bridge across the Bosphorus which officially joined Europe and Asia.

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On our way there it dawned on us that there was a heck of a lot of people around and even more police! The police were stopping pedestrians from crossing the road and hurrying the cars through red lights. This is odd, we thought – there must be something going on (duh!) and sure enough about two minutes later a huge motorcade of blacked out cars and police patrol vehicles came whizzing past!

There were also Turkish flags hanging from everywhere in the street and big banners with two important looking men in suits pictured on them. The flags went all the way past Dolmabahçe Palace (a huge, v impressive building) and there were also about six police buses lined up round the corner. We had to walk straight past them to reach the boat that we were going to get across the Bosphrous – It was really cool to see – there must be someone important around!

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Anyway, not thinking any more of it we got on a boat (just 1.50 lira) and set sail for Asia! Looking back from the boat it was clear that the European side of Istanbul was much more ‘glitzy’ with more shiny skyscrapers than the Asian side.

After we returned to the European side we walked back past the palace and ended up in the middle of a media scrum and surrounded by literally thousands of people all pointing at the road and taking photos. Whoever that important person was, they must be leaving! Turns out that it was the Turkish Prime Minister who had just concluded the opening ceremony for the brand new Dolmabahçe-Bomonti Tunnel (We asked one of the news crew who was sat down on the pavement after the PM had left).

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The city itself is a very exciting place and we prefered it to Sultanahmet which was just a bit too touristy for our liking. You can’t go three feet without being shouted at by restaurant workers telling you that you ‘have’ to look at their menus or people jumping out at you shouting down the street about their “lovely jubbly carpets”! It got kind of annoying in the end – just like walking up the strip in Magaluf!

It was a very pretty place however and the Blue Mosque really is a must see – we went inside too – the first time we had ever stepped inside a Mosque. Was really interesting to get a glimpse at how it all works.

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Sultanahmet was also quite expensive too – our bargain of the day was in the city over the bridge where we had lunch in an awesome potato shop. Scrummy potato boats with a huge range of fillings!

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We would definitely recommend delving into the city to get a flavour of Istanbul life. I would probably suggest staying central to the city and taking little trips out to visit the Mosques Palaces and the Bosphorus.

After the best nights sleep in about a week – we were up bright and early for a 10 hour drive to Goreme in the Cappadocia region where I am writing this from right now!!..

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