Turkey – From Europe to Asia Welcome to Istanbul
After laid-back Bulgaria we crossed the (hectic) border into Turkey. It took us about two hours, the longest by far, due to confusion between the letter ‘I’ and the number ‘1’ – easily done I suppose, if it wasn’t typed on every document, not to mention the number plate. We were sent to an inspection hangar on the side of the crossing, ready (begrudgingly) to empty the Landrover and trailer. After almost 30 mins of waiting Griff enquired as to why we were there, to find that no-one knew why, and what’s more they were confused as to how we’d entered as we were not on the system. It eventually transpired the registration plate had been incorrectly entered, it was re-entered and we were finally allowed to legally enter the country. The chaos of the border was just the beginning!
We decided that as it had taken so long to get into the country that we would stay on the outskirts of Istanbul rather than try and fight our way through the maze to the centre that late in the day. We stayed at Istanbul Mocamp, a campsite, some 60km from the centre and get our bearings for the next day’s drive into the centre where we we had read there was another place to camp, a ‘sort of’ campsite. They had laundry facilities – the first we’d found since Germany – so I was happy! Doing one’s laundry in the shower can be time-consuming and tiring!
Next morning we decided to leave really early and try to avoid the rush-hour traffic – BIG mistake! It seems Istanbul has 24/7 rush hour and we ended up right in the middle of it taking us over two hours to get to the centre. The only blessing was that the gridlock allowed us to experience Turkish driving at a slow pace, preparing us for the ordeals ahead. Why stick to two or three lanes when you can squeeze five or six out of them? Why indicate to move over when you can just barge through? And who says you can’t park or reverse on dual carriageways? Above all else, watch all sides at all times as there is no telling in which direction the vehicular assault may come from!
As if this learning curve was not enough on a Monday morning we missed the turning for the campsite (it being by the fish market, hiding any notion that the road went further) and we ended up driving past the main attractions of Sultanahmet and over the Galata bridge, all amidst the chaos whilst trying to do a U-turn with trailer. Eventually we found the right place, and settled in for a couple of days. It was a strange set-up, with the “campsite” being the car park for the sports centre with the facilities for the teams shared with campers. But on the plus side, it was only a 10 minute walk to the main attractions of Topkapi Palace, the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia, along with the rest of town. It also benefited from having 24 hour security (including dog), and free laundry facilities – keeping me happy again!
Next to us was a German family in a motorhome, and the man introduced himself as Hans. His wife Marina was from Irkutsk, so naturally once we explained our plans they wanted to tell us all about Siberia and over the next couple of days we shared many stories and information over lots of coffee and cake! As it turned out, they would also be staying at the next campsite we’d found in Ankara so we were to meet again, for even more cake and coffee!
But we were there to see the sights, and for the next nine hours we wandered around the streets of one of the most important historical cities in the world. Originally called Byzantium by the Greeks, it became Constantinople, the new capital of the Roman Empire after Rome lost it’s lustre. It remained the capital for the following Byzantine, Latin and Ottoman Empires, with the name officially changing to Istanbul only relatively recently (some of the older readers may still remember it as Constantinople!). Having been fought over many times and being a pivotal city on the Silk Road, it is a truly multicultural place with an eclectic mix of historical buildings and sights which kept us pretty busy all weekend.
It was raining hard on the first day, and by the time we’d looked around Sultanahmet we were soaked through. We decided to take a break from the downpour in the Basilica Cistern (Yerebatan Sarayı), the largest underground reservoir in Istanbul dating from the Byzantine times. It was an amazing, if extremely busy, place. Not very good for drying out though.
We visited the Grand Bazaar (Kapali Carsi) next, perhaps the largest covered bazaar in the world with more than 60 streets, traditionally in sections depicting the goods being sold, from gold and silver streets to those selling leather and carpets (naturally!). Mosques and fountains are also within the complex. The bazaar sells everything you might need (or not!) and it was a good thing for us that our space is so limited, otherwise who knows what beautiful but pointless stuff we’d have come out with! The problem with not wanting to buy anything though is that you can’t even look at something without being pounced on. We found that no eye-contact or sudden (= excitable) movements were key; they sensed interest before we even knew about it ourselves! It was indeed a feast for the eyes, and very overwhelming, so our first time round was a quick tour. However we ended up in there several times by accident, so we saw a lot of it (still no purchases – yay! We’re doing well!). It was so busy and warm in there that we dried off in no time. We also visited the Nuruosmaniye Mosque at one of the bazaar gates during prayers which was a new experience for us, beautiful to hear.
After several hours of being hounded by salesmen, we wandered across the Galata bridge to visit the bars which run underneath all the way along. It was a bit tackier than we expected, which was disappointing, and the bars pulled the usual trick of changing the price once they’d served you, but it was nice to see the lines of men fishing off the bridge, catching mullet.
The subway under the main road surprised us by having a shopping centre underneath – a concept that we are unfamiliar with – and we enjoyed having a good nose around it. Unsurprisingly we had a good night’s sleep after all that sightseeing, regardless of the six lanes of traffic and fishing boats motoring past!
The next day was drier so we decided on a more thorough investigation of the Blue Mosque (Sultanahmet Camii), and we’d intended on seeing the Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya) and Topkapi Palace (Topkapı Sarayı) but they were so expensive (for us and our budget) we ummed and ahhed until they closed! Whoops! In the end, we decided on wandering around the other side of the river in Karakoy, looking for the non-tourist coffee shops – which is easier said than done. It was beginning to feel that everywhere we went in Istanbul, we were a commodity as tourists to be fought over and hassled to spend money. It wasn’t an overly pleasant experience but it didn’t really detract from the fact that the city itself was beautiful, with great and varied architecture which made for great photos.
We spent a good few hours wandering the streets in the evening, and we saw a different side to the city. Surprisingly, the rain made it nicer – there was a calmness and great atmosphere once the hordes of coaches had departed, and seeing the locals drinking coffee, eating baklava and generally relaxing on a weekend left a nicer taste in our mouths.
So with our whirlwind tour of Istanbul complete, and new friends to catch up with, we decided that we had seen enough and it was time to head to Ankara for visas.