We were awoken by a sharp knock at the couchette door by the same guy collecting tickets before. Something about not really knowing what was going on, what we had to do, and also it being the middle of the night gave the illusion of something more sinister. We were totally safe of course.
I first had to go to a window to purchase my visa for fifteen euros. This was the first time that I had to pay anything to enter a country yet this trip but the colored stamp makes for a worthwhile travel trophy. With that in hand, I had to queue up for another guy to apply it and stamp me in. Finally, he handed the passports to another guy whose job was simply to page through them and inquire about any of the interesting stamps that people might have. He was keen on my Pakistan and Djibouti marks, and once satisfied passed it back to me.
The train carried on and soon we stopped to transfer to a bus, as the Turkish rail network is currently undergoing a massive overhaul. That will be great in the long term of course, but for now it forced me to use my precious money on transportation. The bus that they put us all on was packed, and was short one seat. This was remedied though when a sick woman was deemed unfit to ride. She was apparently only coming to the city to seek medical help, and was soon swept away by an ambulance.
We were then on our way towards Istanbul, the ancient city that sits on Bosporus River, split across two continents. This incredibly old city was home to the Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman Empires and is now oozing with history. It was always one of those destinations that I wanted to make it to at some point, but who knew that I ever one day actually would.
My first impression as I was approaching the city was the unique skyline. Being a primarily Muslim country, of course there were mosques and minarets, but they had a very different look compared to the other Islamic countries that I had visited before. These spires were slender and the sheer number of them is what really captured my awe. I arrived and then checked into my hostel in the old town before I set out to see a few of them.
My first stop was at the largest of these, known as the Blue Mosque. This incredible place of worship was not so just because it was so big, but it also dominated the skyline with six minarets rather than the typical maximum of four. The mosques here in Turkey look like a number of shallow domes all stacked on top of each other. I of course went inside, but I found that the exterior was the most striking part of it.
The other religious site that I went to this day was the Aya Sophia, built in the 6th century. It was used originally as a church but was converted into a mosque once the Turks came into power. This would explain the ornate mosaics typical of Byzantine churches still present. This site is registered by UNESCO for its significant cultural and architectural worth, unsurprisingly though, as it spent a millennium as the largest enclosed space on the planet.
The next stop was to the the Basilica Cistern, which was also constructed in the 6th century, and this time by a very well named Emperor Justinian. The purpose of the structure was to provide water if the city ever came under siege. The whole of the massive space is located inconspicuously in the middle of the old town under a park. I climbed down the stairs and was immediately amazed at the size of the room. The 320 or so Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian pillars that support the footpaths and people above were eerily illuminated. Not sure what the storage capacity is, but the faintly illuminated fish filled foot of water was pretty cool.
After this I was ready for a bit of a break and returned to the hostel. There was an Australian in my dorm, and together we decided to get something to eat. After devouring our meat and veggie wraps, we stopped into one of the confectioneries that lined the streets. Turkey has a heritage of sweets and to miss out would have been a shame. We picked out some baklava and a few varieties of Turkish delight to enjoy back at the hostel. We also had a bit of shisha with a couple of others there.
There was a guy determined to make everyone have a good time and was buying drinks for anyone willing to tell a good story; I was able to come up with a couple of them. The sweets were very rich and despite their small size, it was really hard for them not to be too much. Most had thick consistencies and the flavor of various nuts.
The next morning I was going to hit the town with some people, but while waiting for them to gather in morning, I realized I would get a whole lot more out of the day if I was moving solo. I bid them farewell and then walked over to the Topkapi Palace, which was used for centuries by the sultans of the Ottoman Empire. I knew that this was one of those places that I had to get to, but I wasn’t aware of just how sprawling the grounds were. There were a few different sections of the palace and I spent a couple hours exploring them.
The first place that I went to was the treasury. As you can probably surmise, these rooms were filled with with objects of exceptional value. Not so much Scrooge McDuck money vault style, but rather a few of the many priceless gifts, jewelry, and gems that the royal family accrued over the years. Rock sized diamonds as large as 86 karats, rubies the size of eggs, a chest filled with emeralds, two 48 kg gold candlesticks set with 6,666 diamonds each… I nabbed this photo off the internet, since I was barred from taking any myself.
The next stop was in some of the rooms where the council met, which were pretty interesting but nowhere near as good as the harem. I had to pay an extra 15 lira to get to the private apartments of the sultan and royal family, but it was definitely worthwhile. The decoration inside was mostly done with traditional Turkish tiles of various colors and mostly flowery designs.
There was another area that has been used in ancient times to store religious relics. As if entering a mosque, women needed to cover up their shoulders in the presence of the prophets’ belongings. They had there the staff of Moses, the sword of David, the turban of Joseph, the saucepan of Abraham, head of John the Baptist, and also the hair of Muhammad. Most of these characters are significant to both Islam and Christianity, so it makes sense that they would keep these things. The Qur’an has been recited here constantly since these objects were brought here. I’m a bit skeptical of their legitimacy though, because, come on…
After reading every piece of English information I could find, it was time to walk over to some other parts of the sprawling city. The plan was to get to Taksin Square, the sight of the protests a few months ago. The walk would take me along the waterfront and past a number of interesting places. I walked across a massive bridge lined with fishermen dipping their bait in and out of the water. It was a great place to stop and see how the Bosphorus splits the city down the middle.
The long walk up to the square took me through some large traditional streets, but the best part about all of this was the stop I made at the McDonald’s. It had been a while, and Turkey was able to offer me one of my sought after unique menu items. Behold, the McTurco! It tasted alright.
One most unique things about the geography of this city is how it is split across two continents. The silk road passed from east to west right though here, which is what brought this city to such prominence. It would be a shame if I were to come all the way here and neglect a boat ride to the other side, so I made that happen as well. I was running short on time before my bus, so as soon as I got there I took another boat back to the European side, but the couple euro I spent on it was well worth the view of everything from the boat. You can see both sides here.
I had initially planned on spending another day and night in the city, but I figured that I would be stuck with some of that on my way out of the country. Thus, it would be better for me to get going with my itinerary and take an overnight bus to my next stop. There was just enough time for me to catch a prayer at one of the nearby mosques before I left though.