Turkey

My favorite shot in Miniaturk, in Istanbul.

I think almost everyone loves Istanbul. And there is a lot being written on Istanbul. So instead of writing about every detail about this city, I will highlight a few things that surprised me.

Istanbul reminded me of cities like London and Tokyo, both were very large and well connected. However, unlike London and Tokyo, the transportation costs in Istanbul were lower. Relying on public transportation, instead of an airport transfer from airport to the hotel, which costed either 60 or 70 euros depending on which source was correct (usually none of them were correct), I spent the equivalent of 3.52 euros to get from the airport to my hotel by public transportation. However, in cases of emergency, taxi or airport transfer would still be the most reliable option, and they do cost roughly 50 to 70 euros, although the hotel estimated it to be about 30 euros (again, a common theme in Istanbul is the lack of consistency).

Most would advertise Istanbul as a city where two continents meet (sounds exotic doesn’t it?), but I would describe it as being ‘not here, not there’. It’s neither European nor Asian. It is in its own separate category. You would really have to experience it for yourself to understand that. But what I noticed is the importance of the Bosphorus, which I felt had the effect of a clutch as it helped to harmonize the opposing forces from the East and the West. A clutch is a device that helps to engage or disengage two working parts. Without the water in the middle, I think there would have been internal or civil wars in that city, but I don’t think the people in Istanbul ever fought against themselves, rather, they co-existed harmoniously despite their differences.

I listened to an audiobook titled The Forty Rules of Love, written by Elif Shafak. Then I went on to listen to Elif’s The Bastard of Istanbul. The first one highlighted the past of Istanbul and Turkey (especially Turkey’s connection with Rumi and Sufism) in a story-telling fashion, while the second one summarized modern Istanbul quite well. From these two books, I went on to visit the Museum of Innocence, which was an extension of Orhan Pamuk’s novel of the same name. That museum (it really was not a museum in the conventional sense) also gave a very good summary of how Istanbul was like in the past three or four decades. The novels, the museum, and my seeing Istanbul with my own eyes, was a good way to understand the city from multiple angles.

Due to its diversity, Istanbul is hard to properly summarize. So I will tell you one of the more memorable stories instead. On my last day, there was a snow dump. Due to low visibility, some public transportation services stopped operating. While I was walking toward the ferry terminal, a man told me that the ferry was not running, as it was impossible for the ship to see any lights ahead of itself. Although there were alternative modes of public transportation, I did not want to walk in the snow with my luggages, and I did not want to risk discovering that those modes of public transportation were also out of service. So I went to a nearby hotel called Nordstern Hotel Galata to inquire about airport shuttle. There were quite a lot of activities at the hotel. A nearby apartment was on fire in the middle of the night which left its occupants who were mostly tourists homeless while the sky dumped heavy snow all over the city. As a result, many of them flocked to that hotel. The concierge Fatih who was a student said that it was an “interesting night”. Nonetheless, he helped every one of them, including me. We exhausted every transportation option for me. Fatih phoned an airport taxi that the hotel regularly used. I waited in the lobby for quite a while despite not having extra time to lose. I asked what’s the difference between that airport taxi and a taxi off the street. He said, if I hired a taxi from the street, the driver would give me a tour of Istanbul before taking me to the airport. Fatih phoned the airport taxi a couple of times, to see when it would come. Seeing that the time was running out, he ran outside, without a winter jacket, and braved the cold to flag down a taxi for me. Most taxis ignored him. Even taxi drivers did not want to do business in that kind of weather. The few taxis who did stop to talk to him, did not want to go to the airport. He came back into the building to warm up and then he ran back out again to flag a taxi. Finally a taxi driver agreed to go to the airport. He ran back into the hotel building to pick up my luggage. I stood beside the taxi wanting to thank him while he placed my luggage into the trunk, but he promptly ushered me into the taxi. He did not want me to stand in the cold and he did not need me to thank him.

The taxi driver who took me to the airport on the Asian side of Istanbul was called Farhat, but I think it’s more appropriate to call him a bastard. That bastard went to the bridge at Ayvansaray, from Karakoy, instead of driving north along the Bosphorus to take the D-1 highway. As Fatih had said, taxi drivers off the street would give you “a tour of Istanbul” even when you had no time for it. I specifically told Farhat that I had no time. I asked him if he could get to the airport in one hour, he said of course. For the naive, taxi drivers usually would say yes to your request, even if you ask them to take you to the moon, they would say yes, and then surprise you with the result. As for the fare, there is no surprise: he almost double or triple charged me. So Farhat is a bastard.

It is usually the 5% of the population that makes the other 95% look bad.

I would describe Istanbul as diverse and overwhelming. Overwhelming in its art, food, history, population (when you are being squeezed like a sardine in a sardine can when taking the metro, or when walking in the spice bazaar on a weekend), and everything else.

The best place to feel the spirit of the city is to walk along the Galata Bridge, or to view the Bosphorus Sea from a rooftop restaurant while sipping a cup of Turkish tea. I would recommend Elif Shafak’s books if you want to know about Turkey, and the Museum of Innocence if you want to know about Istanbul.