Well, I’m officially in Turkey after a very stressful pre-departure and mostly uneventful flights. Normally I am a very organised person when it comes to traveling (and my wardrobe and bookshelves and nothing else). I am usually at the airport at least 3 hours before my flight (if not earlier), I have all my documents in a nice little folder or plastic sheet, my purse is sorted, my bags are sorted, my liquids and laptop are in an easily accessible spot for scanning. This pre-departure was a bit different thanks to an accounting test I had on Saturday morning. Everyone cross your fingers that I passed.

Anyway, I was flustered and rushing around to get everything finished and ended up forgetting things at home (at least Ivo is home to do them) and forgot stuff in the car and was so late that I almost missed getting my luggage on the flight. I NEVER have to wait in line or worry about my luggage missing the flight, but this particular day, as I said, was a bit more stressful. I did make it to my gate though (just in time as well), had an uneventful flight to Singapore, had an uneventful layover in which I just made it to my gate on time (had to get a transfer ticket and only had a 1 hour layover). There were a few things I contemplated on this layover and on my flight to Turkey that I will cover a smidge later however. I would also like to point out that the most eventful thing that happened on my flight from Singapore to Istanbul was the constant sound coming from a man about 10 seats up from me who either had a really bizarre sneeze or was vomiting/dry heaving for a large portion of the flight and kept waking everyone up with these disgusting noises.

Anyway, I rocked up to Istanbul around 7 this morning and paid for my visa and was stuck behind a team of world championship karate guys from Kuwait (read: gorgeous). I would like to take this time to note that some things transcend language and culture. This particular thing I noticed at the airport was my name. Standing in line to get through the passport check I wasn’t wearing my headphones like I usually would, and I promptly heard over the intercom, “Mr. Aryn De Long to the information desk. Mr Aryn De Long to the information desk.” So it isn’t just the English speaking world that thinks I’m a dude. Good to know. When I met with the company transfering me to my hotel the guy at the desk called the driver to see where he was and said “Miss Aryn De Long has arrived and is ready to be picked up. Yes, Miss. ” Turns to me and says “You are a Miss?” *nods head* “Yes. Miss.” It’s times like this when I’m so glad of the way my  name is spelt. Breaks up the monotony in life.

The drive to the hotel was slightly more eventful than the flights were, needless to say. My driver did not speak any English whatsoever, which quickly became apparent when trying to figure out which bags were mine and which were the other passengers’. He knocked on my window and when I opened the door started speaking to me rapidly in Turkish. I said “Pardon, I only speak English.” and he gestured me to the back of the shuttle bus where he pointed to my bag and I nodded my head. Then the other passenger said something about my carry-on bag in the backseat because when I sat down again he got in the car and started talking in Turkish and pointing to the back. I had an obvious ‘deer in headlights’ look so he pointed at my purse (red) and then at the back. I just nodded my head because I assumed he was talking about my carry on bag. It worked.

That, however, was the least exciting part of the drive. I’m not entirely sure what the road rules are here, but I assume there are at least a few as I did see a couple of speed limit signs (at the rate all the drivers except for one on the road were going it may have been a speed minimum sign). It also seems that talking on phones while driving is completely normal, wearing helmets on bikes is an anomoly and driving using at least 1 hand is optional. Not once, not twice, but three times in the 15 minute drive my driver answered his phone with one hand, shifted with his other and either let the vehicle drift across a couple of lanes (it wasn’t like he ever stayed in one lane anyway, driving in 2 lanes at once also seems to be a norm) or attempted to steer briefly with his knee. Personally, I thought it was hilarious and had a grin on my face the entire way to the hotel.

Part of the appeal of driving from the airport to the hotel is that it gave me the opportunity to look around. Due to the fact that Turkey is a secular country they have adopted the Gregorian calender and the Western weekend for business purposes. So rather than Sunday being the first day of the working week like it is in other Islamic countries (Turkey is predominantly Muslim) it is the last day of the weekend. This meant very little traffic at 8am and an opportunity to see what people do on their lazy Sundays. The most instantly noticable and iconic thing about Istanbul is the skyline. As with every major city skyline it is very distinctive to Istanbul. This skyline happens to include dozens and dozens of minarets piercing the sky, indicating the number of mosques that are actually in Istanbul. Some are smaller, some are larger, but they are all over the place and they are absolutely beautiful. Unfortunately, I have yet to go to Europe so cannot compare how I feel about the mosques to the great cathedrals of old, but I absolutely adore the mosques.

The other major thing I’ve noticed, which has etched itself in my mind and I wish I could have gotten a photo of was the men fishing off the bridge crossing over to Sultanahmet. I don’t know if they are there everyday, but they were out in droves today. It was fascinating for me to see so many men standing shoulder to shoulder fishing off of a bridge when so frequently in Australia and the US you see signs everywhere saying “No fishing from bridge”. This, for me, has become the iconic image of Istanbul. Whenever someone mentions this amazing city I’m going to think of all those men fishing from the bridge. It was made all the better by the fact that the sun was positioned as such that I could only make out their shapes like shadows against a dawn background.

Today was pretty much a leisure day for us as we don’t have anything scheduled until dinner at 7 so I decided I would check out a portion of the city I was interested in but we wouldn’t be going to on our itinerary. I took off early for Ortaköy and Yildiz Park. It’s about a 3-4 km walk the short way from our hotel to Ortaköy so I ended up going via a lot of little back alleys until I wound up at the Bosphorus and decided to walk along the water as I know that if I stayed along the water I would get to Ortaköy eventually. There are a few marked differences between Sydney and Istanbul and Istanbul and the US. Istanbul is definitely far dirtier than Sydney is, but I would put the litter on par with that I have seen in large cities in the US.

There are also cats EVERYWHERE and to a lesser extent, dogs. It’s pretty awesome to see these cats just chillin. There are literally cat’s lying in the streets and on sidewalks and they wander around kiosks and markets and jump on the tables and just chill. I’m sure that some of them have owners as  I saw one riding on some dude’s shoulder, but for the most part they are homeless. They aren’t completely feral like one would expect to find and they all seem pretty well fed, but whenever I happened to approach one (difficult not to as they are everywhere) they look at me like I’m an outsider and appear to be slightly distrustful. The dogs are also very tame for being homeless, and a lot of them are tagged. No idea why, I should look into that. The dogs would be wandering along the sidewalk, peeing on trees and I even saw one that was playing with an empty water bottle. None of them attack, and most of them don’t even take notice of you as you walk past. Gorgeous dogs though. I saw a lot of yellow labs, golden retrievers, german shepherds and even one that looked suspiciously like a husky mix. I like the freedom of these animals wandering around. It gives more character to the city.

During the walk to Ortaköy I passed this wall that glittered, and you’ll be able to see a photo on my public album when I get it posted. It was just a decrepit, falling apart wall but someone had taken the time to paint it a bunch of random colours and there was a gold glitter overlay. Unfortunately, the sun was not out when I took the photo so you can’t really see the glitter, but trust me, it was awesome. This wall area also seemed to be over run with cats. My mum would hate it. She hates cats.  So continuing with my walk I came along another Bosphorus side area where there were more fisherman and there was a shop that was either renting or selling fishing poles (not sure whih as I couldn’t read the signs other than the 20 Lira part). I don’t know what it is, but I just love the sight of these fisherman.

Continuing on further I came across mosques and TULIPS! The tulips are in bloom and they are amazing. I’ve never seen tulips like they have here. There are so many colour varieties and it makes me wish they had them in Australia. They line every mosque and all the sidewalks and many of the roundabouts and other random structures that I have no idea what they are or what they are used for as I don’t read arabic or Turkish. If we pass them sometime I’ll ask our guide what they are.

The mosques, as always, are amazing. They are massive stone structures in this part of Istanbul and frequently have gold gilded dome tips and the spires are insanely high. Most of the one’s I saw the front door was closed so I assumed that meant it was not a mosque that visitors such as myself could enter. I know some of them were open though as I saw one man washing himself before heading in to prayer. In Islam, the people believe they should be clean before going into a mosque. You are not allowed to wear shoes in the mosque, even as a visitor. They are holy and sacred places of worship and thus the saying “cleanliness is next to godliness” applies. The process of washing before prayer is just that… a process. Apparently it is called Wudu and it is of the utmost importance.

Beyond the numerous mosques that I passed I started coming up along these palaces. Yes, palaces. More than one. They were all heavily guarded and the walls guarding the palaces are GARGANTUAN. Truly. One wall that i passed must have been at least 20-30 metres high. I attempted to take some perspective shots and the people walking past look like ants. These walls dwarf the street lamps and the trees lining the main road are barely taller than the wall. The palaces as far as I know that I passed were Dolmabahçe Palace and Ciragan Palace. At what I think was one of the rather extravagant, engraved entrances to Ciragan Palace (but I could be wrong) there were these 2 blue boxes containing a military guard each just standing there still as a statue. Well, they were still as a statue the second time I went past. The first time I went past they were actually getting into position, otherwise I never would have guessed they were real people when I went back the second time. It was a little bizarre to be honest.

At this point I was across the street from Yildiz Park, which was one of my goals for the day, but I decided to bypass it for the time being and catch it on the way back as my other main goal was Ortaköy. So I continued on to Ortaköy, which was only another 100 metres or so up the road and wandered around this little market square area near the mosque. Most of it was the same jewelry I will probably be seeing elsewhere so i just did a cursory glance before continuing on to the mosque. I hadn’t heard the call to prayer at all that day and did not want to interrupt prayer so proceeded to the mosque with caution. I slipped off my shoes, pocketed the money I was keeping in my shoe, slipped my pashmina on over my hair (I actually saw one woman go into the mosque without a head covering. It was shocking and disgraceful.) and walked quietly into the mosque.

This particular mosque is a very small mosque. The smallest one I have ever been in, in fact (not saying much as I have only been in a few), but still very small in comparison to the one’s I have entered. It was, however, as beautifully decorated as any other mosque. The domed ceiling was covered in beautifully painted tiles, the walls had equally beautiful artwork with giant green disks (significantly taller than me) which I have heard have the names of some of the prophets of Islam and two of Mohammad’s gransons in gorgeous golden Arabic calligraphy. There is an extremely large and ornate crystal chandelier hanging low from the domed ceiling as well.

The thing I’ve noticed about mosques that I really love is the sense of peace and the serenity that comes with entering a mosque. The floor is covered with thick persion rugs (I imagine to make it more comfortable for those in prayer and so it doesn’t get so cold), and the colours are beautifully designed to instill peace in the viewer. Somehow the combination of brightly painted tiles with neutral background colours strangely manages to calm the body and soul. There is a marked difference from the churches I have entered, even the open and light Christian churches which are designed with a more modern asthetic, and still contain the unfriendly looking pews. There is an EXTREME difference between the mosques I’ve visited and all the Catholic churches I’ve been to. While I cannot pretend to be an expert as I have never been in a cathedral, the Catholic churches I have been in are always very depressing places. They are dark, with few if any regular windows and the stained glass windows only helps to keep the church dark (good for falling asleep I suppose). The pews are uncomfortable and very quaker-ish and very little about them says “welcome”. But as I said, I have yet to visit any of the European cathedrals.

So moving on from the mosque, I checked out some more of the little stands in the square. One stand held scarves. I love scarves. Scarves also come very useful for travel when looking at Islam as you need to keep your hair covered in a mosque if you are female and some countries it is such common practice to wear the hijab that as a westerner you feel more comfortable with the scarf on. There is a marked difference, even in Turkey of how I am treated when I have a scarf covering my hair. This is not to say I am treated badly, and in general men are very respectful towards women in Islamic countries, however I am given just that extra little bit of help by people (ie, men helping me to chuck my carry on bag in the overhead compartment that I am too short to reach) when I have my hair covered. Anyway, I saw a scarf that I instantly fell in love with. It came in about 6 different colours and in the end I decided on a grey, black and white one as the other ones were just too bright for me to justify ever really wearing. The woman told me 15 lira and I really wasn’t in a bargaining mood so I just accepted it and apparently she decided to bargain with herself on my behalf because she asked me to choose an extra scarf from one of the piles and I ended up with a lovely silver, blue and purple striped scarf as well. 2 new scarves for about $10. Not too shabby.

From there I hit the other side of the main road in Ortaköy just too check out the local feel and it was wonderful. I could see myself making temporary home there at some point in the future. The small cobbled streets and precarious sidewalks were an absolute deathtrap (and I was wearing flats), but the close proximity of cafe’s and shops and fish and vegetable markets and bakeries where it was very obvious that pretty much all the inhabitants of these businesses knew each other and spent their downtime socialising with each other made for a very welcoming, familial and friendly atmosphere. It seemed that bargaining was not only a major part of the buying process, but was also their way of socialising as well. Whenever I stopped to look at anything I was always spoken to in Turkish, which I found bizarre because most people can speak some sort of English (my driver being the exception apparently) in order to say numbers, and Ortaköy being an apparently international area should have been no exception. According to some of the girls on the trip I look like a Turk though. To date I have been mistaken for Israeli and Turkish. Wonder what will be next.

After trekking through Ortaköy (yes, it was very similar to trekking) I decided to head to Yildiz Park. What a beautiful place. I would kill for a park like that in my backyard (or very near it). And the best part is you don’t have to worry about massive spiders eating you in Turkey like you do in Australia. I walked into the park and was immediately struck by the number of dogs just lounging around. They were all tagged, and I’m not sure what that was about, but I’ll have to check it out. Most of the dogs were fully grown and just layed there as you passed, occassionally getting up to find a new patch of sun and grass, but it was very obvious that they were allowed to just run amok if they pleased. I wandered around Yildiz taking a few photos before settling down at a picnic table facing the Bosphorus. I took out my chocolate and a piece of paper to start jotting down initial impressions of Istanbul and ideas for what I would like to learn more about on this trip and just sat there in the peace of this very old park. My contemplation was interrupted by the call to prayer I initially just heard the call from the Ortaköy mosque, but in the stillness of the park was soon able to hear the echoes of other mosques nearby.

It’s a pretty moving experience, hearing the call to prayer and considering what it means. I suppose it could be likened to hearing the church bells for Sunday mass or for a wedding. A large group of people, interrupting their day, just dropping what they are doing, to gather together for something that is so far beyond them and something they so strongly believe in. The difference being that the call of prayer is 5 times a day! That’s a lot of dedicated prayer time. It makes one consider and realise what an interesting phenomenon religion is.

After the call to prayer I continued on with my quiet contemplation before deciding to get back to the hotel. It had taken me nearly 2 hours to get to Ortaköy as I kept detouring and stopping so I was unsure how long it would take to get back to the hotel in Tepebasi. I wanted to get back with time to rest my poor feet, work on this blog and maybe take a nap. Walking back was not nearly as nice of an experience as walking there, but I was determined to not spend my very limited funds on transport that was unnecessary (something my guide has been making jokes about ever since). My feet were absolutely killing me as my shoes (boots) provided zero support, my ankle hurt as I had rolled it numerous times on the death trap sidewalks and my knees…well, that’s pretty self-explanatory for those who know me). But, I was determined. My determination started to wane halfway there however when it started raining. Well, one more benefit of a scarf in Islam…if it rains you just put it over your hair again! I also wore my winter coat so I had a hood, but they kept slipping. I stopped under a tree (there was very little cover this entire walk) to sit and rest my feet and readjust my head coverings and what should the weather decide to do? Hail. Yes, it started hailing. Needless to say, those taxis were looking pretty good. Unfortunately, the taxis here are at 1st world prices and I didn’t trust myself on the public transport so I just kept walking. I made it to the hotel in about40 minutes (pretty good in my painful state I reckon), got my room key, found out my carry on bag was missing only to find out it had been taken up to my room already (which apparently wasn’t my assigned room in the first place).

I was able to get started on this blog while cooling my aching body with drinks from the minibar (no ice machine) and channel surfed until I found a music channel that appears to be a mixture between MTV and E! During the day it’s popular music video’s (and the variety of video’s shows the culture and diversity of Turkey) and at night (read: as I type this) they are during E! style interviews and clips of fashion and awards shows. I’m too lazy to get up to change the channel now that everything is in Turkish. When I say there was variety in video’s, there was variety. The first song was in Turkish, the second I heard was Japanese, after that I heard popular songs from the English speaking world, French, Arabic and Persian. Everything from pop to country, ballads to Arabic and French rap was seen and heard. I’m wishing I would have taken down the name of some of these songs.

Anyway, I did get my nap in, had a lovely dinner with my travelmates for the next 2 weeks before coming back up to my room to finish my blog, enjoy my solitude and head to bead, which I will be doing shortly since most people have gone out to enjoy the Bosphorus by night. Something my legs just can’t handle right now.

I’m hoping to update this trip every day, but at least every other day with some intermittent posts about random musings. I have some travel musings I would like to post soon and I would also like to make more general posts about issues I am interested in that I hope to learn more about while here, so look forward to those as well

Pictures from Ortakoy can be seen in the first half of this facebook album.