Overall we ended up spending just about three weeks in Istanbul, thecity where East meets West seemed to capture us and got us wrapped upin the buzz that seemed to flow through it.
We arrived at the outskirts of the city at midnight on the 23rd of October on nothing more than fumes, honestly all the way along the road that we took from Bulgaria there were petrol stations every few miles but as soon as the little light started to flash on my bike telling me we needed more petrol the pumps disappeared, to say we were a little tense was a massive understatement. Over the next hour or so we rode around various parts of the city never quite knowing where we were, not even the city map that we ended up buying was any help so instead we decided we should ask for help from the local fuzz which led us to one of our first discoveries regarding Istanbul, there are a large number of police carrying guns and I don’t just mean little hand guns, the majority of them are all carrying semi-automatics I even saw a mini machine gun! They all might be carrying blinkin great guns but all the guys that we spoke to were very approachable (well once you got past the “that guy’s carrying a blinkin great gun” thing) and spoke to us in a very professional manner.
Anywhoo after two hours of direction and misdirection by members of the police force and a taxi driver impersonating a suicidal rally driver we finally arrived at our hostel, The Big Apple, in Sultanhamet the touristy district of Istanbul. The hostel wasn’t anything to write home about but the sight of it and what it represented on that night (beds sweet sweet beds) was great, we checked in and that was the last that was seen of us until the next day! (If you are going to Istanbul and want a good hostel to stay at I would recommend a hostel that we ended up staying in later on after being thrown out of The Big Apple as they had overbooked (something that happened quite regularly), it is also in the main tourist area of Istanbul and is called The Sydney Hostel, the people there are far more friendly than those at The Big Apple and we never saw anyone being thrown out the whole time we were there either! ).
After a good nights sleep I went for a shower, no quicker had I turned my back before Kadri was off chatting to one of our roommates, Daniel, an American, no really he is, who is taking a year or so out to tour round the world. He’s a pretty cool bloke and we ended up spending quite a lot of time with him while he was there with us in Istanbul from just chilling out at our favourite (and cheapest) kebab place (it was the only kebab place that we went to that felt like we were getting something like the locals would eat) to going out for a few drinks and being taught Texax Hold ‘Em, a form of poker which Kadri seemed to pick up a bit too quickly and lead to Kadri’s new nickname, The River Queen!
Although Kadri and I were quite often wandering around Istanbul neither of us really felt a great need to rush out and do all the tourist sights; the Blue Mosque, the Ayasofya, the Grand Bazaar, the Spice Bazaar, the Bosphorus cruise, etc instead we would just wander around town and kick back and relax. One week in and we were both still really happy to be in Istanbul, I think I would say it is probably one of the favourite cities that I have ever visited and whilst on one of our tram trips we decided it could be good to stay for a while, the city has a very different sort of buzz that both Kadri and I really liked. I didn’t think it would be too difficult to find a job, the previous night we had been out with Daniel and had bumped into a Canadian that was teaching English and he had been saying that there were lots of opportunities for native English speakers that had a degree so after our trip out we decided to have a hunt around on the internet to see if we could find anything. After a little searching around, a little on the internet and a little on foot, we found two real contenders, English Time and Berlitz English School, both of whom I called and ended up having interviews with, the English Time interview was far more relaxed and I felt I had a far greater chance with them but once I had gone through this whole ordeal both Kadri and I decided that it was too early to settle in one place, we both had that itchy feet feeling again and wanted to push on but apparently not that quickly because after another week of relaxing and generally hanging around Istanbul we were again thinking of staying, I thought to myself if we are actually going to do this I will need a job and if I have a job we won’t be able to back out so lets phone up English Time again and come up with some excuse as to why I haven’t been in touch over the last week so I called the lady I had been interviewed by and then introduced myself to which the only reply I got was that of a dial tone as the phone had been put down on me!!!
With that bridge seemingly well and truly burnt and me not fancying the other English school that much it seemed it was time to leave Istanbul but before we did we thought we should visit a couple of extra sights that we hadn’t yet made it to so the next day we got up quite late and paid a quick visit to The Blue Mosque, it’s funny, the Blue Mosque was one of the big things that I had known about in Istanbul and had wanted to see but during the whole time we had been there we hadn’t managed to see it. We would often walk past it on our way into or back from town and see the hundreds of tourists milling around taking photographs but we would always just carry on past always saying we would see it another day. Visiting the Blue Mosque doesn’t actually cost you anything (although you can leave a donation) and it is a nice building on the inside but I wouldn’t dedicate a whole morning or afternoon to it, I think the thing with the Blue Mosque is it’s status rather than anything else, with it’s six minarets it is considered one of the most important mosques in Asia and it is certainly picturesque both from inside and outside, even if, as a non Muslim there are large sections of the mosque that are not open to you. There is also another sight just across the road from the Blue Mosque called the Ayasofya, this used to be a mosque but was converted into a museum by Ataturk in 1935, we never actually made it into here but were told by others that you got more freedom to walk around than with the Blue Mosque and there was even talk of allowing you up into the minarets which would be pretty cool, if nothing else you should be able to get a good view of the Blue Mosque from here.
After our quick look at the Blue Mosque we decided to head off for another one of the sights, the Underground Cistern. The cistern was built to be used by the Great Palace of Constantinople and is basically a big underground water tank. Although it is no longer full of water it is still pretty cool, it has 336 columns with a walkway set out between them but the main thing to get a look at whilst you are there are the two Medusa heads that were used as base stones for two of the columns, one standing upright whilst the other has been placed on it’s side, these were apparently taken from somewhere but I never found out where or why they were put there, whether it was some sort of insult or just a handy piece of stone!
One of the other main tourist sights that we spent quite sometime at was the Grand Bazaar, near the end of our trip we went there a number of times with another couple, Terry and Dianna, who were travelling round Europe before they jetted off on a round the world trip. It was really nice having another couple to walk around the bazaar with, it allowed us blokes to go off and look at some of the blokey things on offer, from backgammon sets to some very nice fake watches, while the girls were off looking at some more feminine offerings, jewellery, headscarfs and little trinkets. The bazaar itself was really cool not quite the open canvas covered shopping area I had imagined but a covered area made up of large thoroughfares and smaller interconnecting alley with the shopping based in districts. As we were there in October and November things were a little slower than they would be during the main tourist season of the summer which was nice in a way as you didn’t feel so harassed, it also meant that the bazaar owners were all trying to get your attention and were quite open to Kadri and her hard bargaining but unfortunately for us there was one backgammon bazaar owner that wasn’t quite ready to bargain down to a price we were willing to pay and in the end we had to walk away from the deal . (We actually thought that it would be possible to buy a similar backgammon set on the eastern side of Turkey for a price we would be happier paying but later we found out that either we couldn’t find it or things like this just aren’t available in the east of Turkey so if you do end up going to Istanbul and the Grand Bazaar and you see something that you really like remember three things, don’t make it too obvious that you really want it, remember to bargain really, really hard and if it ends up being slightly more expensive than you thought it would be but you still really want it buy it as you aren’t that likely to find it anywhere else. ) And if you are not totally shopped out or over the whole bazaar thing by the end of the Grand Bazaar you, like us, can wander out the back of the bazaar and down through the streets to the Spice Bazaar (if nothing else the shops in between will show you what real shopping is like) not quite as big or as grand as the Grand Bazaar but it is easily equally or more colourful. Again I had grand dreams of huge wicker baskets of spices being laid everywhere but instead you get a mix of spices, Turkish delight, nougat and lanterns all for sale with tasting optional
Terry and Dianne also managed to convince us to take a ferry ride over to the Asian side of Istanbul, not quite as pretty or touristy as the European side the trip was nice as a change of scenery and I think we got to see some part of more normal life in Istanbul but the most enjoyable part of that excursion was the return trip on the ferry we left from the Karakoy ferry terminal (which has since sunk when Istanbul got hit by a storm a week or so after we left!) and quickly crossed over to Kadakoy ferry terminal just as the sun was starting to set, the views of all of the boats waiting to travel up the Bosphorus to the Black Sea were quite impressive and The Blue Mosque and the Ayasofya with the sun setting behind them were both stunning.
Friday the 7th of November was indeed a great day, now most of you out there will be thinking why, what happened, obviously something special and yep you would be right because of Friday the 7th of November James Bond, The Quantam Of Solace came out in Turkey and after finding out we would still be in Istanbul for it I went all out to find a non-dubbed version which ended up not being that difficult Kadri and I ended up roping in a few other people to come and see it, Terry and Dianne as well as a cool bloke from a small known place called London, England called Jon. He had been attempting to cycle round the world on a Brompton folding bike with a little trailer, unfortunately due to meeting the brick wall that is the bureaucracy of visa applications (for Iran and Pakistan, honestly folks if you are going to apply for either of these visas start well in advance for your Iranian one and apply at home if at all possible for your Pakistani one, it will save a lot of cursing and hanging around). Unfortunately after six weeks of waiting around and not really getting anywhere and with the onset of winter he decided enough was enough and headed back to good old Blighty with plans of attempting it all again in 2010, good luck Jon and I hope you get there Oh and by the way, the film was really cool, I think we all really liked it and I would definitely recommend you seeing it if you haven’t already done so
One guy that I haven’t been able to mention yet which we also did a bit of sight seeing with is Kamal, an American that had just finished a long time at university he was part way into what he had planned to be a world tour and although he wasn’t feeling the love for it he decided he would carry on. He was a really nice bloke that seemed to have a real excitement about him, whether it was shopping for suits or just going down to a eatery for some food, just want to say that I hope you are still out there travelling or that you managed to get the job that you were after and good luck with everything.