25

Travelogue : Turkey : Istanbul

The ultimate Turkey travelogue is here!

After Cappa, we were all set to catch a flight to Istanbulllllll baby! I was mad excited about that one and I did not let the late flight play spoilsport. We reached Istanbul around 2 hours late than my expected timing. The craziness of Istanbul and the men started right away. Men in Istanbul are flirts and that’s just an understatement. The shuttle driver while going tour hotel,  called me to sit in the front, asked me if I was ‘Hindistani’, said mashallah to me a few times and made me take my sunglasses off because he wanted to see my face! I tolerated all that only because he was giving me a legit tour of all the places we were passing.

We got to the hotel, and met the 15 yr old daughter of the AirBnB owner, Ecenoor, to be called Ej, who made Moo and me fall in love with her. She had a funny way of doing Umm-hmm when we asked her anything, had the most beautiful golden brown straight hair, and milky skin, and, err,….. so on. After chilling in the room for a bit and re-arranging the space to ensure we could open our bags and walk around, we left for the Sultanahmet square. It was barely a 10 min walk for us and the most important places in Istanbul are located here. We had the Sultanahmet mosque on our agenda for that day, also popularly known as the Blue Mosque, the reason being the intricate mosaic work with blue tiles. It was stunning! Just, stunning! Such a huge mosque, high ceilings, intricate art work! It was so beautiful. We went crazy clicking pictures there. On our way out we had a crazy encounter with this creepiest person who touched me inappropriately and had suggestions to party at night with him and his cousin. Ewww. The string of crazy encounters continued with shop-keepers, restaurant servers, random security guards, taxi drivers.

Day 2 in Istanbul, started with an itchy throat. I did not pay much attention to it and moved on. We had planned on seeing the Topkapi palace early in the morning and the city’s main mosques after. We had breakfast and started to walk towards Topkapi palace. Like I mentioned before, most important locations are at a stone’s throw from each other in the Sultanahmet square. But at one point, I decided to ask this seemingly normal looking old man of around 60-65 who told us to follow him and that he will lead us to where we had to be. After a quick glance to ensure enough people in the surrounding areas for safety, we started following him. He spoke to us about ‘Hindistan’, Hema Malini, about him being from Iran and other random things, seemingly jovially. While walking, we came across a junction where Moo spotted a park and a sign that said Topkapi palace. So we stopped there and told the man that err, we have reached. He said ok ok and held out his hand for Moo to shake. As soon as she took it, he lunged towards her with the weirdest pouty kissy face to give her a kiss! She leaned back horrified and I wrenched his arm away from her and both of us pushed him away. It was awful!!! In order to not make a scene, we said bye to him and I tolerated a hand shake where again I had to pull my hand away from him. We ended up having a big laugh about it later. The side view of his pout is burnt into my memory now. Arrrgghh. We have had the strangest encounters ever in Istanbul with the men.

Topkapi Palace was beautiful but very tiring! The palace was home to the Sultans of Ottoman Empire and their queens. My dad told me later that he had seen the movie Topkapi from 1960s which is about a diamond robbery. Indeed, Topkapi palace had a jewelery collection with huge diamonds. But to be honest, some of them did not have the facets that make a diamond shiny and I felt rather under-whelmed on seeing them. But, I will not mind if you decide to gift me one of those. I will adjust.

After Topkapi, we checked out some mosques in the Eminonu area which were walking distances from each other. While walking to the mosques we crossed the Egyptian market, Spice Bazar and the small internal Istanbul bylanes. It really felt like we were walking in the old town area of Pune. The activity, street food, hustle and bustle is so similar to home.

The last stop was Grand Bazar. On the way to GB, Moo and I took a cab and turned on Google Maps for good measure. That led us to realize that our cab was cheating us and we ended up yelling big time at him and paid only 20 lira vs the 40 he was demanding. By then, my itchy throat was feeling like a cat’s scratch post and was full-fledged hurting. We shopped, bargained, felt cheated, felt glorious, and felt extremely drained out  by the end of our Grand Bazar experience. It is huge, people! There are so many shops, so many trinkets, sweets, lamps, it is unbelievable! Of course the shop keepers flirt big time! In order to get magnets for cheap I had to endure getting propositioned for marriage, being told weird things about my lips and being questioned about my v*rg*nity. Goodbye self-respect. Going back to the hotel from GB also involved yelling royally at 2 cab drivers.

Day 3 in Istanbul started with a visit to Hagia Sophia or the Ayasofya. That place made me feel like I was a part of Dan Brown’s book.  It is a huge museum which was a church in the 500s and then a mosque in 1400s and finally restored and converted into a museum by Ataturk in 1930s after secularization. It is the only place I have seen which has Christian mosaics and frescos along with verses from the Holy Quran, side by side. The chapel was H-U-G-E! It was impossible for us to capture the entire ceiling in one go. The domes were decorated so beautifully! It was all just visually so stunning.

The next stop was the Basilica Cistern. The cisterns were used to provide water to the city during the Roman period. It was eerily creepy yet so strangely fascinating. There was water still in there with these giant fat fishes floating around. Somehow I had the chills the whole time we were down there. There are two pillars in there with Medusa’s heads that were not discovered until restoration in the 1980s.

One big surprise was that Vince texted that he and Proctor had just reached Istanbul last night and they would be free to hang out. Moo and I were planning to do the Bosporus cruise after lunch and we asked them to join us. Like every other water body in Turkey, the Bosporus is also a very striking shade of blue! The cruise was so relaxing! We had a pretty good time clicking tons of pictures, and generally enjoying the views. We even sneaked in a nap towards the end of the cruise on their comfy benches inside the boat. Yep.

We had dinner after in one of the many street restaurants over there which involved a huge confusion over the bill and the money we paid and tax and tips. But we chugged along.

Day 4 was our last day in Istanbul and we decided to take the train and check out the other side of the town and Dolmabahce palace. That is the palace which later also became Ataturk’s part time residence in Istanbul and where he eventually passed away after battling Cancer. The palace has been converted into a museum. As with other historical buildings in Turkey, even Dolmabahce features exquisite decoration and intricately painted ceilings and walls. It houses gifts exchanged with other empires and countries in form of Baccarat crystals, chandeliers, carpets, and paintings. A lot of political diplomacy could be seen at play in the pictures and paintings and the gifts. The grounds were lush green, well-manicured and looked out to the gorgeous Bosporus. I would not mind living there at all!

While we were there, the weather decided to play spoil sport and it started raining. But I really, really wanted to have this local street food Kumpir(a loaded baked potato) and Turkish waffles in the Ortokoy area and so we headed out over there, braving the storms, err, the drizzle. The Kumpir was heaven, but the waffle, was O-M-G! It was beyond delicious! So rich, and so yummy! All for 15 lira each which is like $5.

We headed back to our familiar Sultanahmet area back after and spent the evening strolling here and there and rounding it off with our last dinner of Lentil soup.

The next day, I said bye to Moo early in the morning to catch my shuttle to the airport. I felt bitter-sweet leaving Istanbul. They say that you feel sadness about leaving a place, not just because you will miss the place, but you will miss the person you were, the age you were at and the state of mind you had. I couldn’t agree more.

Turkiye, it’s been real. And it would be a real pleasure if I get to see you again. Till then, hello new lands!

Tips :

  1. 3 days in Istanbul are not enough if you get tired easily. 4 days should be good to be able to space out all places of historical importance.
  2. Go to the Spice Bazaar to buy most of your Turkish Delights(sweets) and spices. Rest of the goods are similarly priced in Grand Bazaar.
  3. Your bargaining must be at its A-game. Otherwise you are going to kick yourself. There shouldn’t be room for  hesitance in your voice. I think I am good at it. Always offer 1/3rd of the price they quote.
  4. Do go for a Tukish Bath/Hamam. I missed that and I feel bad about it. Don’t feel shy. Who knows you there? 🙂
  5. The cabs are expensive if you are alone or 2 people. For 3-5 persons, it is a better deal than public transport wrt to costs and comfort.
  6. I will not suggest Istanbul as a part of a leisurely vacation unless you don’t care about historical sites.
  7. Try and stay in the Sultanahmet area if you are touristy, and stay in the Beyoglu area if you like street cafes, bars and nightlife. You will have access to train stations from both places.
  8. Vegetarian food is available but not the greatest variety. Don’t expect a royal meal and don’t get fussy. Do try the desserts.
  9. Have the Turkish tea and coffee if they offer it in stores and such. It is a nice experience to sit and chat over tea. I am not too fond of tea, but I rolled with it. Like they say, When in Rome, do the Romans, do as the Romans do.
  10. Keep your eyes, ears and nose open. Take in ALL the sensory delights. 🙂 Turkey is amazing.
24

Travelogue : Turkey : Cappadocia

So, continuing the adventures of PB and Moo in lands far, far away, on our magic carpet(SunExpress airlines), we flew off to Kayseri Airport to get to Cappadocia/Kappadokya/Goreme, and any other name you want to call it. At this point, I want to mention the itinerary I prepared and how beautiful it was. I had taken printouts of flight tickets, hotel bookings, places to see, food, timings and arranged it neatly, had put color coded sticky notes and arranged it acc to the days. After my itinerary was complete, I felt like a certified nerd, or a professional holiday planner. I prefer the latter and I see myself dressed as Sonam Kapoor for some reason with a bright orange planner. I digress.

So when we were planning the itinerary, we were planning to go to Pamukkale for a day from Antalya . But Moo, made one single request and I had to honor it. She really, really wanted to do a hot air balloon ride. I had wanted to do it too but was in a double mind about it. Thanks to her request, I decided to fit in a night in Cappadocia instead of Pamukkale and check one item off my bucket list as well. So we landed in Goreme after our plane ride to Kayseri and a shuttle to Goreme. Goreme is gorgeous! It is such an unexpected landscape! If you remember my Bryce canyon pictures, it has similar structures but not orange, and rising from around you, and not in a valley. Like, we were pretty much in between those structures. The hotels are also called cave hotels and if you have a higher budget, you can live in one of those. But we had constricted ourselves to a per night limit and the idea that a cavey structure may house lizards, put us off the real cave rooms. After checking in, we had lunch, and went off to check out the Goreme Open Air Museum. It is a Unesco heritage site which was a Byzantine monastery. There are clusters of churches, chapels, housings inside of the caves and rock cut outs. They are extremely interesting with respect to the history.

Boy, was it hot that day! We felt like we were walking in a microwave with the sun baking us. I felt like a drained out battery and we kept hiding in the caves from the sun. At one point, Moo and I got into some cave room which looked like it was a kitchen and plopped down for about 20 minutes with some tourists flitting in and out, but we refused to budge. It was the best escape from the sun. And that day, I had for some reason decided to carry my zoom lens as well, which was adding to the bulk of the scarf/hat/backpack. We couldn’t even take too many pictures of us because for every pic, we had to take out 3 things atleast from our heads or necks at which point I gave up. 😀

Finally when it had cooled a tiny bit, we left the museum to walk back to the hotel. On our way back, we came across this adorable pottery shop where there were 2 trees covered in blue glassy evil eyes, and old earthen pots. The tree covered in blue was so beautiful, aah, I loved it! Finally, we had some energy back into us and we spent that in taking our pictures. Moo was drawn to alien looking zoozoos which I was kinda terrified of. Eeks. We had dinner after and called it a night since we had a rather early start the next day. It was still so hot, that I slept with a thin towel on me instead of a bedsheet. Haha

The hot air balloon ride called for a insanely early morning alarm, but you know what? Right from clambering into the wicker basket, the lift off, the soaring across the skies watching the sunrise, the intentionally bumpy landing, to popping the champagne after the ride, it was all so magical, so dreamy. I had never thought that watching the sun rise from 850 m high up in the sky could be this intense. The view was nothing short of spectacular and I will let the pictures do the talking here.

PS : There will be a part 3.

14

Travelogue : Turkey : Ankara + Antalya

I am back! *Jazz hands like Karan Johar*

It is September 2015. My birthday month, and never before have I had such an exciting start to my birthday month ever! I am loving 2015 so far. After the meh-ness of last year and half, 2015 has brought new and unexpected things for me. I have run races, climbed hikes, traveled and have so far thoroughly enjoyed myself. I hope the trail of happiness continues. 😀

Turkey was phenomenal! Oh, what a country! I am going to write down as much as I can remember but that is going to cover barely 30% of the memories I have in created. When I met up with the SDSU group in Ankara, we called it ‘CSEL going International’. CSEL= Combustion and Solar Laboratory. We like to call ourselves CSEL fo lyfe. Lol. We had been invited to our Turkish friend Murat’s wedding who was marrying his GF of 3 years Becca. Becca’s all American family also hung out with us and we had a really good time.

I had a 13 hour flight to Istanbul and an hour flight to Ankara. Murat was picking me up at the airport. As soon as we saw each other, we RAN and bear hugged each other. We just couldn’t stop laughing that we were meeting after 3 years! Showing up for his wedding in Turkey felt so surreal! He kept giving me hugs, we were that happy! We had another hour to kill at the airport so that we could pick up 2 of his friends as well who were flying in from San Diego. After a hearty dinner of, err, burger king bean burger, we plopped down on massage chairs at the airport and that was awkward to say the least. We were like two giggling school girls. As a result, Murat was telling everyone that PB is so funny! And when asked why, his reply was just… she’s so funny! 😀

After his friends came, we went over to the hotel, and I went off to sleep at about 11 pm. I slept like a baby till about 10 am till his friend Vince texted me to come down for b’fast. We ate, I went to my room, chilled pretty much for the whole day till the gang came down from their 3 days in Istanbul. Then we got ready and headed to Murat’s parents’ restaurant for the bridal party. It was one crazy affair! We were treated like super honorable guests and I have never been paid so much attention in my life. Like, not even by my parents. Murat and Becca entered to fireworks and traditional dancing. Murat was doing this move that we thought is thanks to his bad dancing skill, but we learned eventually it is a legit step. They love one kind of dance form which we named pinky finger dance. They basically form a circle with people connected using their pinkies and they do this 1-2-3-4-kick-4-3-2-1-kick step. The WHOLE TIME! I was okay with it until I started getting pulled on both sides by my pinkie which was hurting like a b***** by the end of the night. Food was catered by his restaurant and was really yummy with plenty of veggie options(I would like to think so!)

The next day, my jet lag decided to kick in and I was awake at 5 am! I was lost as to what to do and then I heard it! There is something very beautiful about the Fazr Azan. I lay awake listening to it and then I just got up, started watching random stuff on my iPhone. I was so bored that I ate breakfast twice, once alone and once with the rest of the group. Becca’s sisters said that they too were awake and I should have knocked on their doors. They were bored out of their wits as well. Later after breakfast, we went out for sightseeing where we saw the Ankara Castle and this super interesting museum with old engineering artifacts. We walked back to the hotel at lunch time and the manager could not have been a better host! He drove us to a restaurant of his recommendation, insisted that he will pick us up in an hour, then drive us to Ataturk’s mausoleum and arranged a guide for us. Like I said, people in Ankara know how to host their guests. Ataturk’s Mausoleum was the highlight of my Ankara sightseeing. I learnt so much about the Ottoman Empire and Turkey’s history that I had no idea about. Mustafa Kamal Pasha Ataturk was a visionary who merged European culture with Islamic traditions to create a modern, free-thinking society. From what we saw and learned, he was a feminist and one of his adopted daughters was the first female pilot of Turkey in 1930s. The way Turkey moves, it’s society and culture, shows what a liberal thinking country it is, which is very interesting for an Islamic country. My dad had asked if I could get a book on him, so I bought him ‘The Great Speech’ from the museum store.

Moo was flying in that day and I met her after coming back from the mausoleum. It was a happy, happy re-union for us. Somehow both of us end up meeting more regularly than any other friends. In the last 3 years, this is 4th time that we have met. Not a bad record at all! She came like Santa bringing gifts from parents and friends. I got a top and a cute chotu backpack from Dhaka from Ani and Moo and a dress from the boys, Shibs, Saipan and Hazra. Folks back home sent me sweets. Yay for birthday gifts! 😀

We spent the next day exploring some parts of Turkey too. We came back to the hotel after lunch time to start getting ready for the wedding. We took tons of pictures and selfies after cleaning, scrubbing and decking ourselves up. The wedding venue was gorgeous!

The wedding was a mixture of American and Turkish styles with the vows being read out and the bride in a stunning white dress and all that. There was a ritual where guests who were family lined up and were pinning gold to the bride and groom and giving Becca bangles. I could have sworn she looked like an Indian bride, albeit in white, by the end of it. There was delicious food, really rich deserts, a performance by whirling dervishes(I was kinda underwhelmed) and some more pinky dancing. The real party happened after the wedding where we drove off to a club and danced straight from 11 pm to 3 am. Now I don’t go clubbing too often, but when I do, I go all out. My shoes were off, and I was glued to the dance floor. At some point I ended up earning Vince’s tie around my neck. 😉

We came back to the hotel to finish packing since we had a flight to catch in exactly 4 hours. I could have sworn my suitcase had exploded, there was so much stuff! I think I had an hour of sleep pretty much. We headed over to Antalya on the southern coastline of Turkey. When I say the water was really blue, I am NOT kidding around! It was the most brilliantly blue shade of the sea I have ever seen. So pristine! We spent 2 days in Antalya exploring the bazaars in Kaleici, ruins of Aspendos, swimming in the sea and my favorite part, boating in Koprulu Kanyon. Unfortunately, we couldn’t carry our cameras because of the water, but we could rely on Karen’s GoPro. The guide got us into an inflatable raft and we canoed against the tide to reach this gorgeous spring water natural pool on top of a rock. It had waist deep ice cold water. I got into it and I friggin’ couldn’t breathe for half a minute or so! But sooooo fun!

We spent the evening on the beach swimming in the water and called it a day. CSELers left for US that night and Moo and I left Antalya for our next set of adventures the following morning.

Tips:

  1. Ankara doesn’t have a lot in terms of attractions, so 2 days should be enough.
  2. Ataturk’s mausoleum is really high on my must-see list. I learnt so much about the Ottoman Empire and the birth of Turkey.
  3. Taxis are fine in Ankara since every must see place is close by to each other, but Antalya, you definitely need a car. We drove to places which were like an hour apart from each other and that would be hard in taxis.
  4. The rest of the wedding party went southwards from Antalya to Kas and if you have more time and budget, I would suggest to do that because there are some amazing boat tours, and hidden underwater cities to see, and the beaches are less commercial.
  5. If you are booking accommodations on your own, through AirBnB and such, make sure that there are atleast 25 reviews and preferably guest pictures. Do not hesitate to ask clearly how far the beach or the main attraction is wrt walking or cabs.
  6. Make sure to carry and wear plenty of sunscreen and hats/caps because the ruins are all out in the open with almost no shade.

PS : This is just Part 1. Part 2 will cover my shenanigans in Cappadocia and Istanbul.