Autumn: We did it! We made it to Istanbul! Our adventure has finally begun after months of anticipation. Both our flights went smoothly, we had no problems with our hour long layover in Frankfurt. We even had time to scope out the airport Haribo selection. We had no luck sleeping on our first flight but managed in a short nap on the flight to Istanbul. Once we got to the airport the chaos began with trying to find the right passport control station. It was pretty simple getting to the baggage claim, but we had a quite a time getting all four of our boxes. Haegan’s box broke and he thought he’d lost one of his shoes. Thankfully all pieces were present and intact when we opened the boxes. We had tough time with the carts, first finding carts and then getting new carts when our first was taken when we weren’t paying attention. Once we got outside the first thing that hit me was the number of people smoking. It seemed as though every person waiting for a taxi was smoking, something I am not used to in the States. Haegan assembled the bikes in good time the taxi waiting area. We loaded up the bikes and set out in search of the tram. We managed to get on the right tram but got off a stop too late. We redirected ourselves, but when it came to train line change, we decided to walk instead of ride. Rush hour had begun and we realized there was no way we would be able to fit with our bikes on the tram. The decision to walk was a good idea, the actual walking was a little difficult. We walked nearly two miles uphill through pedestrian (and vehicle) packed sidewalks with our 50-60 pound loaded bikes. Once we got to the hostel we were warmly greeted by the staff and other travelers. We got settled and then ventured out to find food. Once we walked out of the hostel we realized just how close to Hagia Sofia the hostel is. We ate at what seemed like the Turkish equivalent of a diner, it was fairly similar to Mediterranean food. After dinner we were completely exhausted, but managed to stay up a few more hours to get adjusted to the time change. I was thinking today about doing things like navigating the trains is much more of a process here because we don’t know the language. It is not impossible, or really even that difficult, it just takes more time and concentration, and it’s lot easier to mess up. Overall, yesterday went pretty smoothly and I’m so glad to be here. Starting in Istanbul was definitely jumping in the deep end, but we’ve had a great time.
Haegan: Day one of crazy sightseeing. So much to see, so little time (and money). I’ll try to do a quick recap of the whole day. We got breakfast at the hostel (bread, dried apricot, and apricot for me) and set off to see as much as we possibly could. We started off with (what else but) the Hagia Sofia (30 turkish lira) or Ayasophia as it is also known. It’s everything you would expect and then some.
1700 years of history makes for a pretty amazing place. We saw ruins of the second church (of three) from the mid 400’s as well as the current Hagia Sophia and the tombs in the same complex. I don’t really know how to put it into words. The artistry and the engineering are both incredible. The main dome is over 56 meters across and standing in the main prayer area the building is overwhelming. There is so much space and so much happening visually that it takes a long time to take it all in. The mosaics in every building we went to see are amazing: thousands of tiles making up murals that once stood over 10 feet high. Although a lot hasn’t survived the 100’s of years, an amazing amount has and the preservation efforts have kept the mosques bright and colorful. In the same complex there were four or five tombs of sultans and other royalty, each with their own feel and tons of great artwork. All of the buildings constructed by sultans have a similar domed roof style and lots of arches/intricate masonry work. After that we decided to grab some food. We had bagels from a street vendor for one turkish lira I got a thin crispy seasame bagel and Autumn got a bagel with nutella for two turkish lira (40 cents and 80 cents) and then went to a little restaurant to grab some kotfe which are like meatballs, they were served with rice, vegetables, and some garnish. They were quite tasty. At the restaurant we met a guy from Texas with his girlfriend from Prague and chatted a bit about our trips. He gave a great overview along with a map of what they were doing while they are here which prompted us to add a few things to the day’s plans. Fortified we set off again. First the Blue Mosque: It was a little different because the Hagia Sofia is a museum, but the Blue Mosque is an active mosque. That means people are in and out five times a day with the call to prayer. During prayer it is closed to the public and because it is an active mosque there are fewer visitors, and a few more rules. All it meant for us was that Autumn had to cover her head and we had to remove our shoes before entering.
The Blue Mosque was about the close for prayer when we got in so we didn’t stay very long but similar impressions to the Hagia Sofia but without in-progress restoration as everything was already in great shape because the Blue Mosque is in much newer (early 1600s…hardly new). From the Blue Mosque we headed straight to the Basilica Cistern. There’s a fairly small and unassuming building where you buy tickets, 20 turkish lira each, and go through a metal detector before heading down the stairs. As we found out, a cistern is a holding place for water brought in via aquaduct. This cistern was built for the Great Palace of Constantinople in the 6th century. It’s dark with ilumination coming only from lights the bottoms of the columns. Along with the two foot deep water on the bottom it has a very cool eerie feel to it. The cistern was built from recycled columns from other buildings so they are kind of random and different from one another. At one end there are two Medusa heads supporting two columns, one sideways and other upside down.
There is also a column called Hen’s Eye with eyes and tears carved into it, supposedly to recognize the slaves who died in the building of the cistern. From there we caught a tram (a light rail system runs through the streets of Istanbul) to the Suleymaine Mosque. All the public transit we’ve been on the has been awesome, every 5-7 minutes and only costs 4 turkish lira (about $1.60) but the downside is they are always packed! No space to even breathe. The Suleymaine Mosque is visited by fewer tourists than the Blue Mosque but equally if not more intricate and beautiful. I really liked the fact that is was less busy and with no line to get in. They layout was remarkably similar.
We decided to squeeze one more site into our already full day and set off in search of the Grand Bazaar. After wandering through small, steep, winding roads that we are now becoming used to, we got to the area outside the Bazaar which is packed with shops, some only about 5 square feet of space for the shopkeeper to occupy, goods spilling out everywhere. We saw hundreds of fabric shops with anything you can think of and then ended up on a whole street of lingerie before finding our way into the Baazar. Imagine a mall in a building over 500 years old. The inside is just as hilly as the streets outside and even more packed. People are smoking everywhere and some parts are pretty dimly lit. It was overwhelming to say the least.
We finished the day up with some awesome Turkish pizza from around the corner from our hostel. While I’ve been writing this post we met some cool people staying at the hostel, au pairs from Austria and Peace Corps members from Moldova here in their time off. In the first two, days here a few things have stood out to me. One was seeing police standing around with fully automatic weapons, Autumn pointed out how many cats are always wandering in the streets here, and realizing how different it is to be somewhere with a very different language. Getting used to not understanding much of anything said around you and not being able to read most signs is pretty strange. One thing that has made the whole experience so much easier is how kind everyone has been. Even though sometimes people have no idea what we are saying and we are just as confused, people have been very helpful. After someone took our luggage cart when we looked away, an airport attendant got us two new ones for free. When we got lost on the trains a nice man explained in the English he knew how to get where we needed to go and the security at the train stations let us take our bikes on board even though they weren’t really supposed to. So far it’s been amazing and I can speak for us both in saying it has been a great way to start the trip.