Landed out of Europe. On the positive side the alphabet is much clearer, on the negative side it’s a whole new culture to get into. Hold on is that not why I’m doing all this?
Quite glad I had some euros, 25 of them have gone into the visa to get into the country. I used the British passport, I think I should have used the Italian one, I’m not sure now how the Americans will like a Turkish stamp when I get into the country in July.
Anyway got into the country and now on the bus to downtown, the minaret calls are already a feature of the soundscape and, as usual I’m not sure how I feel about that.
The hostel is really nice, a dive compared to the ones down under or the UK, but full of atmosphere and the people look really nice. There is not a huge international vibe, I suspect the time of the year as well as the location might conspire against it. I’m in Beyoğlu, in recommendation from my friends Maral and Ugur, so I avoided all the hostels down in the less lively old town, where I presume the majority of the backpackers congregate.
It’s mainly raining outside, it will be like this for the whole three days of my staying, so walking around town is not as much fun as I suppose it would be in the spring. In saying that, it appears that it’s preferable this way to the scorching humid heat of the summer. On the first day I walk down to the historic quarter and discover the Topkapy Palace is closed. I go to the Archeology Museum instead and then up to the Hagia Sophia, to the Blue Mosque and to the bazar.
I come back down the following day to see the Topkapy which proves to be a mild disappointment, primarily due to the fact that the main reason to be there, their jewelery collection is closed for restoration for a few months.
The Hagia Sofia is well worth visiting, the blue mosque too and the Archeology Museum is a hoot, but I would not recommend forking out for the Topkapy Museum unless the jewellery is visible.
The real treat about being in Istanbul is however going around. It definitely feels like you have left Europe, much more so than going to either North or South America. The city is slightly chaotic and there are always at least a couple of mosques visible from any place in the city. The calls to prayer are more continuous than I have experienced in any other Muslim country and there is an incredible mix of architecture which makes you truly appreciate the immense heritage of this place as a gateway between cultures.
Modern Turkey is however in big trouble. Joining the European Union appeared a matter of time just ten years ago, while now it looks all but impossible for the foreseable future. I have Turkish Armenian friends that alerted me to the massive ethnic rifts within the country, but it took a conversation with a Turkish Kurdish guy in the hostel to give me a full sense of the problem. “They are all leaving” he said. He was referring to foreigners that had made their home Istanbul as well as secular educated young Turkish. The road where the hostel was located was full of Italians, Greeks, French that had made Istanbul their home, now they are all gone. The current regime, as reinforced after the recent coup, is driving the country into a dictatorship where the traditional Turkish values of openness and secular tolerance are replaced by zelothic religious fervour. He’s trying to get a working visa himself and wants to move to Portugal.
I was not mightily impressed by Istambul. I don’t know what percentage of it was due to the weather and what due to the fact I don’t yet do third world so well. I’m sure I’ll be back, it’s a place, I sense, people go again and again, but I am happy I stopped in Athens and Istanbul before tackling the chaos of Tehran and the full sensory immersion of Delhi.