Day 1 in Istanbul: Yes, Please!

While Italy was amazing, we had no idea what to expect, and since our plane landed at 2:15 AM, we thought it might get off to a rough start.  We needn’t have worried, though, and Istanbul proved to be a great experience for us, even if it put us outside our comfort zone once or twice.  That’s part of the reason we try new experiences, though, right?

Since we arrived almost four hours before public transportation started to run (we were determined to avoid paying for a cab), we planted our tired bodies on a bench beside the baggage claim, and Sarah slept for a couple of hours while I guarded the bags from the approximately zero other people at the airport.  Before leaving, we found a Starbucks with absolutely terrible coffee, but who can be picky at 5:00 in the morning halfway across the world from home?

Our first real experience in Istanbul was the tram system, which is very similar to the Max in Portland.  Our hotel was all the way across town, where the bulk of tourist attractions are in a place called Sultanhamet.  In order to gain access to the train, you buy tokens which go into a slot that unlocks the turnstyle–a brilliant papersaver, c’mon, P-town!  The tram was almost all men on their way to work, and two of them immediately began to help us, even though we couldn’t even pronounce the names of the places to which we needed to go.  One guy was going to the same general area, and he had us follow him through the tram change and made sure that we knew we needed to go two more stops once he got off.  What a grand introduction to Turkish people, and this trend continued as two more people helped us find our hotel, one even calling on his cell phone when he couldn’t help us himself–we were using a tiny guidebook map because we were not able to get a good one at the airport, and well, no good map of Istanbul exists.

Our hotel was run by three, or perhaps six brothers, it was hard to tell.  They did not have a record of our reservation and were somewhat surprised when we showed up at 7:30 AM; since it was a pension (like renting a room in a house), all but an adorable kid of about 13 years old were sleeping on couches throughout the house and outside in their downstairs hookah bar.  He found an open room and let us in before immediately disappearing.  We spent the next hour trying to find internet (Sultanhamet wakes up late, and we weren’t all together sure that the kid had checked us in) to make sure we had gone to the right place (we had).  Finally, we returned to the hotel–noting that maybe next time we should right down the name of our hotel instead of going by memory.  Exhausted, and feeling positively disgusting after Rome’s heat the day before, the long plane ride, and no shower or change of clothes, we returned to our room to nap and clean up.

Feeling 100 times better after our rest, we ventured out to grab some lunch–chicken kebap, cucumber, and tomato, with yogurt sauce (haydari), which became almost a staple for us, it was so delicious.  We are drinking bottled water in Turkey, but the restaurants use clean water to wash vegetables, and 6 days in, we have not had any gastric tragedies.  Restaurants usually have a barker outside who tries to charm you in to looking at the menu, most of which are virtuallly identical to the next place, and usher you to a table.  Most are good-natured, but in areas where they are side-by-side, it becomes more pressured, what Sarah accurately refers to as “running the gauntlet.”  The food has been delicious, though.

Our next stop was the Basilica Cistern, an ancient resevoir originally built in AD 532 and rediscovered in the 1500’s, which could at one time hold 80,000 cubic meters of water for Byzantine.  Three hundred thirty-six columns standing in perfect rows hold the cavernous cistern up, and orange-glowing lamps light the exhibit, with damp beads of water dropping from the ceiling.  Large carp (up to a couple of feet) and goldfish swim throughout the cistern.  In one corner, two columns feature Medusa heads carved in the bases for some reason, and another column is decorated by tear drops.  Who knew that a big old water ditch could be so charming and interesting?  Both of us were intrigued that people so long ago could create such an organized system.

We visited the beautifully fancy Aya Sofia next; this building was also built during Justinian’s reign in the 6th Century AD.  The place had been used as both a mosque and a church at various times before becoming a museum in 1935.  The main feature, it’s giant dome, was high above the floor and had many flower-shaped chandeliers hanging from it down into the center of the museum, really only feet above my head. In one corner, the Sultan’s loge, a screened pulpit-type place, allowed rulers to pray in private within the mosque, and another corner featured the Weeping Column, said to have been designed by a miracle-worker; it has a hole you can stick your finger in, and if it comes out wet, your aches will be healed.  Many people were trying this out, but I remember being warned at one point or another growing up that sticking your finger in mysterious places might result in the loss of said phalange, so I refrained.

The best part of the museum was probably the mosiacs painted onto the building and best viewed from upstairs. The largest were of Gabriel, an archangel who we later learned is said to have guided Mohammed the Prophet on his famous flight; a security guard who wanted to practice his English tried to explain this to us, but we couldn’t understand him, although we appreciated his effort.  Several smaller mosiacs upstairs portrayed Jesus sitting in between members of ruling families, usually bearing gifts to him.  It was interesting to me that the rulers would place themselves in his company, but then I realized that similar scenes are portrayed in paintings that we had seen in the Vatican and Uffizi museums.  Overall, we really enjoyed the beauty of the Aya Sofia, and some of the Islamic blanks that we had were filled in for us the next day when we visited the Topkapi Palace.

Our last site of the day was the Blue Mosque, famous for its many blue lights that give the camii it’s famous nickname and hue–interestingly, the exterior was lit up in white that night instead of blue, perhaps because it is the holy month of Ramazan?  Before entering, we put on pant bottoms–several Muslim women nodded their approval at us doing this well in advance of entering–and Sarah covered her shoulders and the bare skin above her neckline.  A young man escorted us to the entrance, giving us both an introduction to the mosque and a salespitch to go and see his family’s carpet shop; he was nice enough and readily accepted “no, thank you” when he rejoined us outside the exit.

Once inside, we were treated to a beautifully tiled dome (much of it blue), rich red carpets, and four giant columns that looked like elephant’s feet supporting the dome.  The large dome was surrounded by smaller domes, giving it the postcard bulbous look that we had expected.  Men prayed in the large area in front, while women had a much smaller area in the back.  Overall, the place was absolutely gorgeous, and it would be an enamoring place to worship.

For dinner, we found a quiet place with a low-pressure sidewalk sales job and dined on a meze place–appetizers that included grape-leave rice wraps, eggplant in tomato sauce, humuus, and of course haydari–and a lamb stew served on eggplant in an herbed sauce.

After dinner, we returned to our pension on the hill, where all three–or six brothers, it’s hard to tell, were busily running their tea shop and hookah lounge, which seldom held an empty booth.  They were a great bunch of guys, and we enjoyed staying with them.

If you have made it through this extraordinarily long entry, or simply skimmed to the bottom, I will explain the post’s title:  apparently, the Turkish vendors have picked up on the fact that Americans say, “yes, please,” when they want something.  So everywhere you go in tourist Istanbul, you hear, “yes please, ice cream,” or “yes please, carpets” as you pass the vendors and their stores.

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5 Responses to Day 1 in Istanbul: Yes, Please!

  1. Kathy says:

    I can’t believe you didn’t stick your finger in that hole. I thought you were much more adventurous than that.

    Nice photos, and it sounds like y’all have found your groove. Enjoy the rest of your time in Turkey!

  2. Dad says:

    My dad always said, “Watch where you put your hands.” – good advice – but missed opportunity. The cistern looked really cool – your photos are good. Enjoying.

  3. Crystal says:

    ha ha ha, I have often used the same phrase as Sarah regarding “running the gauntlet”! it’s a good thing she has you to protect her 🙂

  4. Maria says:

    Great writing, Mike! I think it’s ironic that you you mention in the same entry being careful about water you drink and visiting that neat cistern place with water everywhere. Enjoying the blog so much!

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