Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Turkish Delight: The Wandering Prince

One of the Princes' Islands

Horse-cart station at Buyukada








Fatih's Tourist Police


Sunday/Pazar


I had reserved a whole day during the trip for visiting Prince's island. In all the Top-10 lists of places that must be visited in Istanbul, Princes’ Islands are placed near the top end. Many people that I met in Turkiye were of the opinion that the islands are a world in themselves, distinct from Istanbul and probably the best thing about it. A Pakistani friend who lives in Ankara these days told me that he felt the most peaceful in Istanbul while visiting those islands.

Walking through hippodrome, I saw some tourists taking pictures with the ‘tourist police’. I was amazed at the efficiency levels of Turkish municipalities especially when it came to cleaning up. Thousands of people descended upon hippodrome during Ramadan daily but there was no sign of trash come next morning. The tram from Sultanahmet took me to Kabataş from where I hopped on a ship towards Prince's island. It took us almost an hour to reach the place, as we traveled through the Bosphorus and Sea of Marmara. I didn't find many English-speakers on the ship but I had gotten used to this situation by then. The most memorable moments during the journey were the showmanship and performance of the Captain of ship. He demonstrated little tricks using citrus fruits and urged the passengers to applaud him. Most people on the ship were families out for a day-trip and picnic.

The Prince Islands are an archipelago off the coast of Istanbul, in the Sea of Marmara. They consist of four large islands, Büyükada(Big İsland), Heybeliada, Burgazada and Kınalıada and many smaller islands. I disembarked the ship at Büyükada. 

The first thing that got my attention at the island itself, was a huge flag of Fenerbahçe football club(current champions of the Turkish league). I had no idea what to do after reaching the place so I roamed around to assess the situation. I found a horse-cart station where one can hire a horse-cart with a driver who takes one across the island. The short-tour was supposed to cost 70 (yetmish) Liras, which I thought was a bit expensive. I found a cheaper and healthier alternative nearby. There were multiple shops that let one borrow a bike at the rate of 5 Lira per hour. I have loved riding a bicycle ever since I was a child. I used to roam around my city on a bicycle and have a few scars to show for my efforts. 

I got a bicycle on rent and start pedaling on a random road. It was easy at the start but I was faced with a dilemma within a few minutes. The road was not horizontal in character, in fact, it had an ascent.It was not like the plain streets and alleys of my city. While biking upstream, my bicycle almost gave in. I have never used the gears on a bike and have no idea how they function. As a result, i was exhausted within 10 minutes of starting my Island adventure. 

I opted to walk along the bike until i had little energy or motivation left for it. I was panting for air, sweaty and very thirsty. The return journey went very smoothly because I didn't have to pedal and used only the breaks to control my ride. I went back to the bicycle store and a guy there urged me to try again. I took a different route during my second attempt and spent almost an hour cycling around the place.During this ride,a guy asked me for directions in Türkçe to whom I replied that I don't understand Türkçe, in Türkçe (Türkçe Bilmiyorum)  :P 

Büyükada is a primarily residential area visited by people who want to enjoy picnic. There's a small beach-like place as well where I found people swimming and sun-bathing. The horse-carts run wildly on the road and bikers are at a risk of getting trampled by the horse-carts. 

I had to wait for almost half an hour to board the ship back to Kabatas. At the station, I saw an Arab guy wearing a stupid T-shirt which said, "No means Yes"(I found it stupid because it was a polar opposite of feminist slogan "No means No"). The ship that brought us back, stopped at all the small islands en route. It reminded of the old, rotting public buses in Pakistan that stop after every five minutes, irrespective of space for passengers. Some passengers tempted the seagulls during our voyage and the birds kept flying close to the ship, looking for bread crumbs. I talked to an Englishman on the ship who was a frequent visitor to Istanbul. He recommended that I should read "Forty rules of love" by Elif Shafak as I was going to visit Konya. I found two senior citizens sitting side by

Later on, I spent some fun time with Meltem, Furkan and Özge. I confided in them that I had not had a proper Turkish meal since I landed because of what happened last year(I coughed for almost a month and a friend of mine got terribly sick). They encouraged me to try the dishes so I asked them about Iskander, Piyaz and Simit. Özge told me about her fondness of waffles(from Mado), irrespective of flavors and that she liked watching different people(and that,according to her,was the reason why she chose to do volunteer work). Furkan revealed his love for history, and how he was learning Italian to be able to understand historical documents. We also discussed political prospects of Fatih's mayor, Mustafa Demir(whose whole family is into the profession of dentistry). Furkan and Özge were of the view that Fatihullah Gülen(Pennsylvania-based Turkish preacher who has established schools all over the world and was a former ally of the AK party) was a "traitor". Meltem confessed her fondness for dystopian novels including "1984" by George Orwell and "A brave new world" by Aldous Huxley. 

We encountered a guy from Konya who was studying Sharia'h at the university and knew about Pakistan. He could understand English but had trouble in talking the language(a common problem for many Turkish students that I met during my stay). He told me that he was more interested in Arabic than in English. Afterwards, we had an unpleasant experience with a middle aged man who tried to shame me for not fasting, and pooh-poohed the volunteers when they told him to keep his opinions to himself.  

I was supposed to travel to Ankara the next day and I wanted to get the ticket beforehand. I decided to use the tramvay to go to Otogar. Boarded the tram from Sultanahmet and got off at Aksaray, walked a bit till the İstasyanu and got on the tram for Airport. It dropped me off en route at the Otogar. During the ride, I saw a girl checking Facebook, zooming in on the picture of a guy and looking at the girls in the background. It was so "girlish" that I almost broke into a chuckle, but restrained myself somehow. Got off at the Otogar, got the ticket and took the return tram to Aksaray. Walked from the station to YousufPaşa and went to Karakoy and from there to Taksim. 

I had seen books by Elik Shafak at a chic bookstore in Isteklal Street and I got a copy of it. I felt very hungry after my exertions during the day and had initially planned to find some Piyaz as appetizer and then to have a meal from Fat-burger. I chanced upon a shop in Isteklal that had an open salad bar, so i decided to skip Peyaz and to enjoy some salad(Salata) of my own liking. After enjoying salad i was moving towards Fatburger when I saw a shop titled "Patato"( In Türkçe  the word for 'potato' is ‘Patates’). I ventured in and found a dish called Patso, which was basically french fries in a panini bun with ketchup and mayonnaise as topping. I decided to give it a try. It was not a princely meal but it was enough to satiate my hunger. 

On my way back, i encountered a few people selling Che-guevara merchandise and some Turkish magazines. I also saw an office-building owned by the Turkish Communist party,located right next to a mosque :P . 


Friday, 29 August 2014

Turkish Delight: On Top of The World


Galata Bridge, Eminonu Pier and Sultanahmet in the backdrop


View from the Galata

Another wonderful view from the Galata Tower

View from the Galata 4


Inside the Basilica Cistern

Another view of Basilica Cistern
Saturday/Cumartesi
 

Traveling to other countries and exploring different cultures is a wonderful experience. Most people that I talk to are afraid to visit another country ‘alone’. I never had any such apprehensions while visiting Turkey. I believe that it is easier and more feasible logistics-wise to travel alone as it gives one absolute freedom to pursue anything that one fancies.
Most (if not all) good pictures of Istanbul include the Galata tower in their backdrop. It is one of the icons of Istanbul’s historic skyline. On my third day in the city, I had wanted to visit the top of Galata tower and had reached it the other evening, but I could not reach its top due to closing hours. My first mission on Saturday was to reach the top of Galata and take a look at the majestic surroundings of Fatih area. After finishing my usual breakfast (yogurt, boiled egg, cucumbers, chocolate-toasted bread and watermelons) I took the tram to Karakoy. Walked up the steep incline to arrive at the basement of Galata Tower. Fortunately, the queue was not very long and I was able to purchase the ticket within minutes of arrival. Once you line up in the queue, you have to wait for your turn to buy the ticket and then wait for the next elevator lift to arrive at the ground floor. The elevator can accommodate around 6-7 people and it takes the visitors to the floor just below the sky deck. The reception at that floor has a gift shop and a photography setup where one can get pictures taken while wearing Ottoman attire.

After two short flights of stairs, the Sky deck awaits eager visitors. At any given time, no more than 20 people can use the Sky deck so one has to move faster or give other people some space to navigate. The Galata tower was built of wood as a lighthouse in 528 by Byzantine empire Anastasius Oilosuz. It was rebuilt of stone masonry and called Christea Turris(Christ Tower) by the Genoese in 1348. The tower is almost 67 Meters high from the ground and 140 Meters high from sea level. 

I have been to some really tall buildings and have seen skylines of New York City, Chicago and St. Louis. I had seen many cities of Pakistan from places up top. Despite all that experience, the view from Galata tower blew my mind away. It was probably the most beautiful view I had ever seen. There's a verse by Pakistan's national poet Iqbal(in Persian Language)which says that “If there is a heaven on earth, it would have to be in Kashmir”. I partly agree with this opinion as I've witnessed the green magic of Kashmir, but this, this was probably better than that. It was an out of the world experience.

I was smitten. I took a lot of pictures from the top but what I felt at the moment cannot be adequately described in words or pictures. It was a feeling, of unadulterated joy. Shakespeare wrote many centuries ago that 'a thing of beauty, is a joy to behold'. I had a similar experience. While doing the photo shoot from the skydeck, I was approached by a young Turkish woman who wanted her pictures taken with the historic skyline as the background. I did my best to do as I was instructed. I just hope that she was pleased to see the results. After spending almost 30 minutes up there, I came downstairs(without getting the Ottoman attire pictures) and went back to Sultanahmet.  

My next stop was Basilica Cistern, a place that I couldn't visit last year due to the reluctance of my friends to visit any place that had tickets for entry. The queue for entry was not that long and a group of ridiculously blonde people was ahead of me in the line. I had wanted to visit the place ever since I read Dan Brown's novel "Inferno". Much of its action and drama had happened in and around the Cistern. It was an interesting place, with ancient pillars supporting so much weight till today and waterways that had fish, visible from the surface. The two heads of Medusa were a sight to behold. 

The Basilica Cistern was constructed in the 6th century, during the reign of Emperor Justinianus. It is 70 meters wide and 140 meters in length. The dome covers an area of 9800 meters square, and has 336 marble columns arranged in 12 rows each. The capitals of these 9 meter high columns are a blend of Corinthian and Ionic styles. The water reserved in the cistern was transported from the Belgrade forest which is 19 kilometers away from the city. 
On my way back to the hotel, I saw Kaan and we got to talking. He invited me for lunch at the volunteer office. We had some time to kill so we roamed around the hippodrome area and still managed to reach the volunteer office ahead of time. I wasn't particularly hungry so I took a pack of Aryan and a piece of watermelon. At lunch, I met Meltem and Mehmet, who were deputed to look after the Gülhane area. I walked with them to Gülhane Park and talked to them for some time. Mehmet is studying forest engineering and his hometown(in the Anatolian heartland) had many forests which is a good thing for him, career-wise. He lamented that popular Turkish dramas are distorting the historical events and that he looks slightly like Behlul. He mentioned his fondness for Erdoğan and the popularity of AK party. Meltem explained to me the social customs in Turkey for young adults. 

While we were sitting near the entrance of Gülhane park, Some American tourists came over and asked for directions. We offered to accompany them to their destination, and one of them asked "how many?". We told him that we were volunteers providing free information. He said that he got it, he was jokingly asking 'how many of you would accompany me?"(there were 4 of us :P). That incident justified my liking for American people and how fun-loving they are. 
After a wonderful discussion with Meltem,I walked from Gülhane towards the German fountain and struck up conversation with Ahmet Kaya, Aysenur and Mustafa. It was there that I met Hatice, and discussed my favorite American dramas with her for many hours. Hatice(Hatijay) is the Turkish equivalent of the Arabic name “Khadija”. There was a brief interlude as I had to take a quick detour of my Otel to call my mother, but we resumed our conversation after that. She loves Sheldon(like myself) and had watched different TV series. She was shocked to hear my indifference towards Game of Thrones and gave out a spoiler regarding the next 'Hunger Games' movie. Ahmet taunted her as a "nerd" while I kept telling him that he was too young to be a volunteer and that he should stay and home and enjoy life for a while. 
Throughout my interactions with the volunteers, American pop culture references were a common factor between me and them. It truly is a globalized(Americanized?) world.
Hatice was one of the very few girls I met who did NOT want to become a doctor or a psychologist. Some unruly Turkish men approached us and asked the girls about the German fountain in broken English. They were obviously trying to harass the poor souls and If it were in my power, I'd have gotten them arrested. The most memorable part was the arrival of baby Majed. Her mother brought his walker near us and we were stunned to see a cherubic baby with golden hair and blue eyes. Her mother asked us something in English(to our mighty relief) and we talked to her for a while. 

She let us play with Majed who enjoyed playing with water. Hatice fell in love with him and asked him to remember her when he grew up. Afterwards, we were sitting at the steps of German fountain when we got invaded by pigeon-poop. Ahmet got a stain on his trousers while I got my shoes dirty. Hatice was kind enough to lend a few wet wipes from a Turkish family so that I could clean up my footwear. We witnessed a very ‘modern’ problem while sitting near an ancient monument. There were three Turkish girls at the fountain who were trying to get a picture taken with the monument. First they tried themselves, then they asked Ahmet, then someone else, but were still not satisfied by the end result and were arguing about it for almost an hour. 

As soon as the clock struck 5.45 pm, volunteers from nearby thronged to the fountain and waited for the supervisor to come, to mark their attendance. She arrived a few minutes late, and in a few minutes everyone was on their way home. 

I was supposed to accompany my Mexican friend to a concert in Beşiktaş but I was stoop up, so I walked over to sea-side and sat there for a while.
Later in the evening, I visited Burger King outlet in Sultanahmet area where a teenager bumped into me, got confused and said "Thank you"!! I replied with “Bişey değil” which means “not a problem”(Its Spanish equivalent is de nada). He was with some of his friends and they all laughed. He said ‘Sorry’ correctly after that.

Friday, 22 August 2014

Turkish Delight: Friday


Gezi Park,Istanbul


Taksim Square, Istanbul
Ceramics Bazaar

Some weirdly named spices

Blue Mosque: Alternate View
In the mosque's courtyard during rain

Rain, Sea, Rainbow, Balloons, Macaroons and Me

Exquisite color of the sky during dusk

Galata Tower: From across the bridge
New Mosque at Eminonu.

Galata Tower, from below


(I traveled to Turkey for vacation during first half of July,2014. Following is an account of my experiences in Istanbul. This is the fourth installment of the series, involving an quick trip to Taksim, meeting new people and an unsuccessful trip to Galata Tower. I hope you enjoy it)


Friday/Cuma, 4th July 2014.
“Each and every human being is a work in progress that is slowly but inexorably moving towards perfection. We are each an unfinished work of art both waiting and striving to be completed.” Elif Shafak

I started Friday in frenzy. Having gotten myself booked on a flight to Cappadokia, I was supposed to buy a ticket till 11 am on Friday. The closest sales office was near Taksim and I had failed to locate the office last night. I was determined not to miss this wonderful opportunity. The weather was overcast and made the historical skyline look even prettier. Following the routine breakfast, I left the Otel to take a tram towards Taksim. I had used a map from foursquare to locate the office previously. This time, I took the exact address from Turkish airline's website and checked it on Google maps. I reached my destination well in time and got my return ticket. A wave of calm and accomplishment swept over me. I was finally relieved. I strolled across the square to enter Gezi Park and stayed there for a while.

Ever since the Gezi Park protests, I've felt spiritually close to that place. The events at Gezi, initially with an environmentalist agenda, snowballed into a protest movement that affected the Turkish society as a whole. AK Party’s Islamist government overreacted to the protests by using indiscriminate force, and the viral videos of police brutality affected the optics. Turkey, with its tremendous economic growth under the AK party regime and tourist-friendly policies, presented a unique model as a modern Islamic country for much of the last decade. Gezi Park changed the perception that everything was alright under the surface. The protests united people from various strata of society and stood as a symbol of cosmopolitan awakening in face of an increasingly repressive regime. Taksim square, with the Monument of Republic and Ataturk Cultural centre in background, became the symbol of resistance of urban middle classes against forced gentrification of their city. One of the aspects that I discovered and which fascinated me was the role played by Ultra-fans of different football clubs in Istanbul(more on Turkish football in later), especially the bravery shown by members of Beşiktaş club’s ultras known as Çarşı.

Gezi Park is not as majestic or historic as the monuments in Sultanahmet, but it is a modern shrine to that resistance. I took the tram back to Sultanahmet and spent some time hanging out with my friend Doğukan.I joked that If he ever went to the US, he’ll most definitely be nicknamed “Doug”. During our walk around the hippodrome, I was introduced to Nazlıcan. We went together to the volunteer centre where the youngsters had lunch and I got some Ayran.Ayran is Turkey’s national drink and is a mixture of yogurt mixed with water and salt, shaken together. We have a similar drink in Pakistan known as “Lassi” and it is served in both salted and sweet flavors, although it is not AS popular as it is in Turkiye.

Doğukan led me back to B gate of Blue Mosque via the ceramics bazaar(Arasta Bazaar).I spotted some oddly named spices there and the smell of spices there reminded me of Old bazaar in my hometown. During the walk back, I spotted graffiti in support of East Turkestan movement in China. It felt out of place, until a friend later explained that Turkish government supports East Turkestan Islamic Movement as part of its foreign policy. The movement strives for greater autonomy of Uyghur Muslims living in Xinjiang province of China. The weather was absolutely pleasant and sat at one of the wooden benches in front of B gate. Soon there was a whole gang of volunteers there chatting with a south Korean tourist (Yeonghwan Kim) .While we were sitting there, a group of north African girls approached us and asked about the "black market" of Istanbul! We suppressed our giggles and told them that they were probably looking for a “flea market”. The volunteers informed them that all tourist areas are relatively expensive in Istanbul and they had little options to shop cheap. We were later joined by a British lady and even more volunteers. 

We talked about south Korea and the subjects that each of us was studying (or pursuing to study at a university). All three girls (Beyzanur, Nazlican and Sinem) wanted to be doctors. Upon enquiry, I was told that the reasons for this choice included the prospect of a good, wealthy life, influence of TV show 'Doctors'(Turkish version of Grey's anatomy) and choice made by parents. Later on, I found many girls who wanted to become psychologists. They gave the reason that it involved less work than becoming a doctor and the profession was quite popular. 

While we were sitting outside the mosque, it started raining heavily. Before that, we were surprised to hear the imam conclude his Juma sermon in English!! I was sitting there waiting for a friend of mine who was supposed to visit me. I met a British-Pakistani there who was visiting Turkey to obtain a hair transplant. He regaled me with his life-story, how he used to run a business in Leeds and lost his savings in the stock market crash, his move to Hull and the hooliganism he faced at his takeaway place initially. Meanwhile, we spotted two Pakistani families coming out of the mosque after Juma Prayers, recognizable due to Shalwar Kamiz, the traditional dress in Pakistan. One of the families had immigrated from my hometown to Denmark and the other family was based in London. 
The rain got so ferocious that we had to move inside the mosque. It was full of other tourists who had sought shelter in the covered area of the mosque. I met Kaan under these circumstances. He works as freelance photojournalist and we discussed political situation in Turkey, socialism and anarchism (inside the courtyard of Blue Mosque :P).

I caught up with my friend whom I had met the last time I was in Turkey. He hails from Iran but has spent the last five years in Istanbul, getting two masters degrees in International Relations. We sat at a café near the Hippodrome and discussed about the time we had last year and the intervening period since then. We had Turkish tea/kehva while he informed me that he worked part-time as a tour guide to support his stay in the city. He promised to get me booked in a cheaper hotel with similar amenities as soon as I vacated my previous one. We discussed Iran-US relations, situation in Gaza and American Universities. He was kind enough to escort me to the nearest Koska shop, from where I could get the best Baklava in town. It was raining and we didn’t have an umbrella, so he departed afterwards and I walked back towards my hotel.

After taking some rest, I grabbed coffee and macaroons from the nearby McCafe and walked to my favorite place near the seaside. There were balloons, rainbow, slight drizzle and an absolutely beautiful view of the city from afar. I tried to let the feeling sink in for a while and then took a walk towards Galata Bridge. I had previously visited the Galata area but had not visited the top of Galata Tower, I decided to reach the place and take a look at the city during the wonderful dusk shades. I was not fortunate enough and reached there an hour too late. The tower was closed for visitors after 8 p.m., a fact that I was previously unaware of. I roamed around Isteklal street and visited Carl Junior’s near Taksim square. It was almost empty except for me and an Arab woman with her young daughter. Brazil was playing Colombia that night in Quarterfinals and I kept checking the scores on my mobile. Everyone was glued to the TVs in cafés and restaurants across the neighborhood. I was supporting the underdogs(Colombia) but they lost the match eventually. It was another fun-filled day spent in a city that I began to love even more. 

(To be continued)