|Istanbul: First Look|
|The Flight Route|
|My First Meal in Istanbul, with the Volunteers|
|The Milion Stone|
|Distances of different world capitals from Milion Stone|
|Me, Hamid Jalilee, Fatma, Dougkan, Ahmet, Beyzanur|
|Sea of Marmara|
|'Hala' in Isteklal|
(I traveled to Turkey for vacation during first half of July,2014. Following is an account of my experiences en route to Istanbul and onwards. This is the second installment of the series, focusing on the departure from Lahore Airport and First day in Istanbul. I hope you enjoy it.)
Wednesday, July 2nd, 2014
I reached Lahore Airport well in time before the flight. I had never been too late to catch a flight or a bus because of my fathers’ insistence to be extra-careful in these matters. My flight was supposed to fly at 5.30 am and I had arrived at the airport at 2:00 am, with a couple hours of sleep. I am not a nigh-person by any stretch of imagination and do not like anything more than a good nights’ sleep, so this was one of those nights when I sacrificed my sleep for “a greater cause” (:P). I took a seat at the waiting area, alongside two Turkish men. One of my high-school friends was studying in Ankara on a scholarship and he had sent me a small guide-book outlining basic phrases in Türkçe. Based on my previous experience in Turkey, I had decided to learn the basics of language. I had tried to memorize some of the important phrases given in that book, and had relied on Google Translate for pronunciation.
We waited till 3:00 am for the check-in counter to start functioning. There were two flights (one of Emirates, the other of Etihad) ready to leave before us and their passengers had spent hours while checking-in. As soon as one of the flashboards showed the number of our flight, the two Turkish men leapt towards the counter and positioned themselves at the front of the line. I walked behind them and found a place in the same line. There was an additional queue for business class passengers. The clock kept ticking while we stood there. 15 minutes, 25 minutes, 30 minutes, 45 minutes. The line stood still; there was no one at the check-in counter to help us! A tall Turkish guy in the business class queue got impatient. Initially, he asked politely for the “manager” of the area. There was no reply. We were informed that it was time for ‘Suhoor’ and thus the staff were busy in that. Later, we got news that staff was busy in Fajr Prayers. This was too much to take for the tall Turkish guy, who started shouting at the manager and anyone who cared to listen. He pointed to the Turkish guys standing in my line that no Pakistani was protesting, and everyone was just standing there, in no hurry.
After 45 minutes of standing in the queue, the staff miraculously appeared. Another issue surfaced this time. Apparently, a tax had been imposed in the latest budget and everyone who got their tickets after 30th June, 2014 had to pay an extra Rs.1200 ($12) at the counter! This was unprecedented and most passengers balked at this idiotic gesture. Some people did not have enough cash on them, some were only carrying US Dollars and the check-in counter staff did not have any currency other than Pakistani Rupees. Even Credit/Debit Card facility was not available and they only accepted cash. It caused a minor kerfuffle but eventually, the line started moving. On my turn, I asked the check-in guy to assign me a window-seat, which he did. After almost 70 minutes standing in that line, I was able to get past the Check-in and in the Departure Lounge. It was there that I first used my newly-acquired Türkçe skills and asked one of the two Turkish men that I had seen, if he knew English (İngilizce biliyor musun). To which he replied, “Yes”. I told him about the gate number where we were supposed to gather, as he was sitting at the wrong gate previously.
The Flight left Lahore at 5:35 am and I sat comfortably in my window seat, gazing at the beautiful sunrise over Lahore. I slept for sometime and woke up when our plane had crossed Afghanistan. We crossed Baku and entered Turkey soon afterwards. We could not land at Istanbul airport at once and had to wait for a few minutes due to some technical issues. Meanwhile, the pilot gave us an excellent overview of Istanbul, the vastness of which amazed me(I later discovered that Istanbul’s total surface area is FOUR times as big as that of New York City!). The last time I had landed at Ataturk Havalimani(Airport), there were long lines at the Passport control points, but this time was different. There were hardly any people and it took me less than five minutes to get my passport stamped till the baggage collection section.
More than half of the passengers on our plane were in Istanbul for Transit and were moving on to further destinations, because of which the rest of us had to wait for another 30 minutes till our luggage arrived. During that period, I got to talking with a fellow Pakistani who was going to Italy after spending 3 days in Istanbul. It was his first time in Turkey so I gave him some pointers about the situation. As soon as my bag arrived, I took it and ran towards the exit doors. My first task was to get some Turkish Liras and then to get an Avea SIM card. I got the US Dollars changed and got a new SIM. I discovered at the kiosk that a mobile phone in which a Turkish SIM has been previously used, can’t be used again in Turkey. It was weird to know, but fortunately I had a spare phone so I got the SIM card for that. I asked the salesperson internet package, which he informed me about. He also instructed me to turn the phone to “Airplane Mode” and only use the phone after two hours.
I moved out of the airport and took a Taksi to Sultanahmet. Using Tripadvisor.com, I had booked myself in for five nights at Saba Hotel near Sultanahmet/Blue Mosque. I had spent two days in that area last year so I knew the place a bit. The weather was nicer than in Lahore and I kept the window open throughout the ride. I told the driver in Türkçe about the hotel and showed him the email from the hotel that I had printed out. He called someone and asked them about exact location of the place. As we got near Sultanahmet, he informed me that due to traffic issues, he won’t be able to drop me in front on the Otel but near it. I was okay with it as I don’t mind walking. As it turned out, he had dropped me off on the backside of Sultanahmet and I had to drag my bag through the cobblestoned streets till I reached the mosque. I was relieved to see it because I knew my hotel would be somewhere nearby. I walked slowly in the hippodrome area and tried to see any hotels around the area. I reached Gate C of the mosque and was standing aimlessly when three teenagers wearing blue shirts approached me. They asked if I needed any help, in English. I was relieved to hear someone speaking English and told them that I definitively required help and that I was Lost! I showed them the email from the Hotel, which had mentioned their address and a small-ish Google map was also given.
Despite the instructions given in the email and Google search by those teenagers, we were not able to figure out my destination. A slightly older girl in a red shirt came over and asked us about the issue. She saw the email and after some discussion with the teenagers, was unable to locate the place either. She said that she will help me find it and starting walking towards Hagia Sophia. One of the volunteers asked if I would like to have lunch with them. I accepted their offer delightedly, and walked with them to their office on the other side of the Mosque. I discovered that the teenagers were volunteers, working for Fatih Municipality(which contained numerous tourist attractions), guiding tourists in English, without charging anything. They were aged 15-25 and most of them were either in high schools or in initial years of university. During my last visit, I had not seen the volunteers as their tenure ended in September and I had visited in the second week of September. I enjoyed lunch at the office, while talking to many volunteers. Most of them had never met a Pakistani before, so it was my duty to leave a good impression upon them. After we finished the meal, one of the volunteers(Doğukan) escorted me to the area behind the mosque. He explained the history of the Hippodrome and the cages where Lions were kept. During our walk, we asked someone for directions to Saba Hotel and were finally guided in the right direction.
We crossed the Marmara University Presidency and I found the sign of my hotel in the adjoining street. I stopped Doğukan in his tracks, asked him to get back to where he was deputed and promised to come back and hang out with him as soon as I checked in to the hotel. The lady at the hotel reception was very nice and friendly and she guided me to my room. When I paid the bill using a Credit card, it dawned upon me that I had accidentally booked a really expensive hotel. The friendly lady informed me that Wi-Fi service was only available in the Lobby, which was a big let-down.
After Checking into my room, placing my luggage and changing my shirt, I headed to the Hippodrome where I joined Doğukan and Fatma Betül. They took me on a little tour of the Hippodrome, starting from German Fountain to the Egyptian Obelisk and Roman Obelisk and then to the Milion Stone. We later sat down on one of the many benches placed in the Hippodrome and talked about history and each other. During that time, I restarted my mobile and it started working. It was a relief to finally have 3G service. After almost an hour of this chit-chat, we were joined by a guy sitting on a bench nearby. He was Mr. Hamid Jalilee from Iran, a businessman learning Türkçe in Istabul. We talked about common words in Persian, Türkçe and Urdu(Pakistan’s national language, which is a mix of Arabic, Persian and Sanskrit). We also taunted the Turkish teenagers about the poorly cooked rice, found in Turkey. During our chat, we were joined by Ahmet Kaya and Beyzanur. We talked and talked and talked for almost three hours, and I left the area around 6 p.m., having sat there since 1 p.m. I learnt plenty of words and names that day, which helped me during the rest of my stay.
It was tiring(as I hadn't had much sleep in the preceding 24-30 hours) but it was sooper fun. I left for my hotel, which was hardly five minutes away from the Hippodrome and took some rest. One of my Pakistani friends is studying in Australia. One of her classmates was doing an internship in Istanbul and was staying in Sultanahmet. I caught up with her after some rest at the Hotel. We walked towards the Marine Drive, and sat alongside the Sea of Marmara. She had graduated with a degree in Psychology and was pursuing a Masters Degree in “Role of Gender in Development”, a subject close to my heart. We talked and walked alongside Keneddy Cadessi(Road) towards Galata Bridge and took the Tunel to Isteklal Cadessi. I was terribly hungry so I got some fries and a shake from Shake Shack which lies right next to the Tunel station. Last time, I had walked across Isteklal twice without visiting Shake Shack even once, and upon my return had heard rave reviews about its burgers and fries. My new friend gave me an Istanbulkart which was a blessing. We walked across Isteklal, enjoying the live music and at one place, a group dance(I was later told that it was called ‘Hala’, a traditional Anatolian Dance). We took the Funicular from Taksim to Kabatas and from there we took the tram to Sultanahmet. I reached my Hotel around 11.30 pm and was really exhausted so slept immediately. It was a wonderful first day in Istanbul.
(To be continued)