At the end of May I spent a week in Istanbul, the largest city in Turkey. It can be overwhelming and crowded as their population is 13 million and that does not include tourists. Citizens of the city are generally helpful and will assist if you need directions or something else. You can go there with just the clothes on your back and a wallet full of cash and come back after buying everything you need for your stay. Or you can go there normally and if you are not careful come back with an empty wallet, having spent all your money by giving in to the many aggressive street vendors or some more unscrupulous ways of losing your cash at restaurants.
Did you hear about the Turkish guy trying to pick up an English gal? The Turkish guy does not speak English well and asks, “Are you disco?”, then, “Are you cola?” When there is no reply since she is confused about what he means the Turkish guy finally gives up and pleadingly asks, “Well, what are you!?”. This inside joke is often circulated by Turkish locals. Are you ice cream?
I was lucky to be couchsurfing with four university students. These guys were really great and a sitcom show in the making, “Four crazy guys and a flat” I told them. One flatmate played practical jokes where one time he told his other flatmate that they needed to tear down the wall in his room to open up more space for couchsurfers. He also tried to convert me to Islam where on some days I would wake up with the Quran tucked neatly under my arms (kidding). The guys provided me with good sightseeing tips and introduced me to the local cuisine. I still don’t know which animal intestine I ate in my toasted sandwich but it tasted really good!
Traffic jams seem to be the norm in Istanbul and like the Frogger video game pedestrians aggressively cross streets at their own risk.
There are trams and buses that can take you everywhere in the city. If staying for a noticeable duration where you constantly need to take the transit then it is best to get a refillable electronic transit card. It costs 7 Turkish Lira (TL) for the card and when you load money on it and use it the fee is 2 TL per ride. If you go with buying individual (red) tokens then it is 3 TL a ride. Taking ferries across the Strait of Istanbul require specific tokens at 3 TL each or you can use the transit card. It is quite entertaining from dry land to watch dozens of the ferries zig-zagging the waters narrowly missing each other both on the water and at docking.
There is a lot to see and do in Istanbul. You can take the tourist route and sign up for tour buses and boat tours. Or you can just wander on your own and explore the nooks and crannies of the city. Just be wary to not go too deep in its labyrinth of inner corridors off the tourist path as I once sauntered through a sketchy area of the city, continuing my nonchalant walk without missing a beat or taking out my camera otherwise I would just attract MORE attention to myself than needed.
Some of the popular must see places in the city include going to the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sofia, the labyrinth of shops in the Grand Bazaar, the beauty of Topkapi Palace, exploring Taksim, Gulhane Park, Galata Tower, Maiden Tower, seeing the Medusa heads in the Basilica Cistern, the Obelisk of Theodosius and the Spice Bazaar….to name a few.
Fixed Prices and Haggling
It was good to know beforehand that vendors like to haggle prices. It is part of Turkish culture. I did notice that the prices in the Grand Bazaar are up to 20% more than other shops in the area. Once I asked what the price of a shot glass was and the vendor said it was 7 TL. After I said “okay, thanks” he asked if that was an okay price and was willing to go lower. Another time when checking the price of a telescopic walking stick with a built-in flashlight (yes, I’m a geek) I was quoted 40 TL. In less than a minute without me doing anything but trying to leave the price went down to 15 TL.
In some stores you will find signs that read “fixed price”. This shows that some vendors are getting increasingly tired of haggling the price of a product a tourist may not even buy. The sunk costs (or sunk time) in trying to haggle a not-so-interested passerby may make the vendor desperate and could end up selling at a razor thin margin. No wonder they work 10-12 hour days.
Protests, Riots, Burning Cars and Tear Gas
The first time I heard about protests was when waiting in line at the Hagia Sofia. An Italian couple waiting in line with me said they took a double-decker tour bus around Taksim Square. They became stuck amongst a sea of protesters. Then the police showed up and used tear gas to clear the area. The Italian couple had to cover their mouths and suffer through the exposure of the gas while stuck on the bus.
The initial reason for the protests was to oppose a proposed tearing down of Gezi Park at Taksim in order to make way for a shopping mall. Locals would soon be amassing in huge number to express their frustrations with their current government. Little did I know how the next few days would unfold.
The next day when I took a boat to Kadikoy, the Asian side of Istanbul there was a gathering of citizens by the pier for an upcoming protest-demonstration. The streets were even barricaded off for what looked like an imminent protest march. I decided to quickly take a couple photos and leave the area as a precaution. Then when walking along past Maiden Tower I noticed from across the river a plume of smoke rising up from Taksim. The cause of the fire was an overturned burning police vehicle by some protesters who had become rioters.
That night I was scheduled to meet up with one of my Couchsurfing hosts and another couchsurfer at Ortakoy, close to Taksim and the riots. They never made it since they unknowingly became stuck while in Taksim. One minute you are exploring a popular area and the next you are in a sea of protesters and what you think is the way out is actually the front lines and you are being chased by police in riot gear. They narrowly missed being directly blasted by the large cannon of pepper spray from a police truck. The exposure to tear gas in the surrounding air forced them to seek refuge in an apartment building.
The only route to Ortakoy was blocked by a massive cloud of tear gas. I had at the time unknowingly passed the point of no return on going to Ortokoy, remaining safe from the chaos in Taksim. I was eating a tasty chicken schnitzel dinner inside a restaurant when I looked up and saw some passerby’s walking by with covered mouths. A trickle of tear gas had drifted into Ortakoy. So I got up and closed the restaurant door.
Once in Ortokoy my route back to the apartment was blocked off by the tear gas hovering around Taksim. The safest way back was a roundabout route on the highway. By happenstance I had come upon a young Canadian 20-something couple from Toronto looking at a map discussing routes with the help of Turkish locals. The three of us decided to split a cab. With the help of the good GPS in my phone (Nokia N8) I was able to remind the taxi driver to stop running up the meter after he took us farther away past the highway from where we needed to go.
Being on guard for scams takes away from the relaxing part of visiting foreign places. As I was enjoying a tasty cappuccino at a cute restaurant-cafe I noticed two Aussie gals arguing over their change from the meal they had. Apparently one gal gave a 100 TL (50 Euros) note for a 25 TL meal so she could receive smaller bills to use later. The server took the receipt booklet with the money in it and walked away to split the 100 TL into two 50’s pocketing one of the 50’s and going to the register. He came back with 25 TL and handed it to the second gal hoping the first one wouldn’t notice. The first gal wondered why the server gave the receipt booklet to her friend and then saw that she was short changed. An argument ensued and the manager and other servers were crowding around her denying that she gave 100 TL to start with. After some back and forth one of the servers said “Okay, you are smart girls” and gave back the 50 TL.
And then walking past another café I heard a group of people arguing over their bill. At some point during their dinner the server came by with a “complimentary” dessert. They didn’t want it and didn’t eat it leaving it at the table. When the bill came they were charged for the dessert and so an argument ensued with multiple servers and manager circling around the patrons as a means of intimidation. The manager tried to negotiate by offering a discount on the dessert.
This is not to say every restaurant is crooked. On my first day I ate a burger at a restaurant and when the bill came the owner didn’t charge me for the cola I had; he said it was complimentary.
I managed to enjoy exploring Taksim before the protests. This area is considered the centre of Istanbul and is home to many shops, cafes, restaurants and hotels. You can even take a small trolley down the main pedestrian street of Istiklal Ave.
It was halfway down Istiklal Ave where a large group of people gathered around a young couple. Turns out he had just proposed to her and she said yes.
Istanbul is a vibrant city that can overwhelm you with its fast-paced way of life. As long as you are ready for it you can have a really good time exploring and learning about its history and culture.