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

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)

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Turkish Delight: Sightseeing

View from Kennedy Street,the coast of Sea of Marmara

Theodosius Obelisk and the Yilani Column

Konstantinus Obelisk and Yilani Column

The Hippodrome. These tables and chairs have been installed here by local government.People bring their food and do Iftaar here.
Tram crossing the Sultanahmet area. On its way to Kabatas
Nurosmaniye Mosque, First Look
Inside Nurosmaniye Msoque
Nurosmaniye Mosque. Exterior
Breakfast View: Exhibit A

Breakfast View: Number 2

Breakfast View: No. 3
Blue Mosque: From the Courtyard

Fountain inside Hagia Sophia Premises

Inside the Hagia Sophia

Hagia Sophia: Another View
(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 third installment of the series, including sightseeing done during my second day in Istanbul. I hope you enjoy it)

Thursday, 3rd July, 2014

I was informed the day before, that breakfast would be served from 7-10 am on the top floor. My room was present on 2nd floor and the “top” floor was the fourth floor. So I took the stairs and reached the designated area. As soon as I reached the place, I was spellbound by the view of Bosphorus and the ships from that vantage point. It was such a perfect backdrop for breakfast that I forgot all about the breakfast itself. Took a few pictures of the surroundings and Blue Mosque, which was hardly 500 meters away from there. That view alone was worth the expensive hotel bill. Turkish breakfast typically includes three necessary ingredients: Olives, Honey and Cheese. I picked three different types of cheese, black and green olives and small packs of honey, which I ate with toasts. There was option for coffee but not tea (the kind that we have in Pakistan, black tea with milk).

After the healthy breakfast, I had two major objectives for the day apart from sightseeing. I had brought along some clothes for my nephew and sister who live in Germany, and I was supposed to send those items to Germany via courier. The other major task was to find an iPad-to-Camera connector, as I could not shift any photos from my camera to the device without it. I had bought a knocked-down version of the connector from Lahore but it failed to work when I tried it in Istanbul. Aside from these tasks, I wanted to sightsee as much as possible. On the previous visit, I had tagged along with friends who were loathe to visit any place that had an entrance fee, which restricted our options very much. I had seen two documentaries (The Ottomans and Byzantium: A Tale of Three Cities) in the intervening year, after which I cursed myself that I had been in such a magnificent place and had squandered the chance to visit it just to save a few pennies.

I left the hotel to find a suitable electronics shop in Sultanahmet or Grand Bazaar (Kapali Çarşı) area. During the morning shower, I had noticed weird texture on my nose and I realized that it was sunburn because the Ultraviolent (UV) index in Istanbul can cause sunburns. Passing through the Old Bazaar (Asirlik Tatlar ve Sanatlar), my first stop was a chemist shop, from where I got a sunscreen. Afterwards, I wandered around the place, stumbling upon a cemetery where tomb of Sultan Mahmud II was present. I found that most of the graves were built in a particular style that was uniquely Turkish, and one doesn’t see such graves in the subcontinent. During this walk, I reached the magnificent Nuruosmaniye Mosque (Nuruosmaniye Camii). It was commissioned from the order of Sultan Mahmut I beginning in 1748 and completed by his brother and successor Sultan Osman III in 1755. After doing a photo shoot of the interior and exterior of the mosque, I went back to Sultanahmet. Volunteers (or ‘Ask Me’ Volunteers as they call themselves) had started to descend upon the area, gathering in the Hippodrome area and the green belt between Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia.

I decided to visit Blue Mosque and venture inside its main hall. On my last visit, I had managed to come here twice, but had not gone inside, due to stupid reasons. This was my chance to rectify that, so I went in. The mosque was built from 1609 to 1616, during the rule of Ahmed I. It is one of the most memorable parts of Istanbul’s historic skyline. It was majestic, beautiful and haunting. There were dozens of tourists, as amazed as I was, from the experience of being inside that wonderful place. I spent almost twenty minutes inside the main hall and emerged from front gate (Gate A) of the mosque. There was some kind of ceremony going on there, with a lot of volunteers present. I walked towards the ceremony to find that Mayor of Fatih Municipality, Mustafa Demir had arrived at the ceremony and some local official was giving a long speech. I spotted my friend Doğukan sitting near the Mayor, so I approached him and sought his help in finding the nearest DHL office. He directed me towards the road next to Basilica Cistern. It took less than ten minutes to reach the DHL centre and send the clothes to my sister. It later transpired that I had made a blunder in that regard. I had sent the items using “DHL Express” which is a faster but expensive way to send items, and that I had declared the cost of items to be too high, which resulted in my sister having to pay some Euros as insurance!! In my defence, it was only my second day in Turkey and I had yet to master the language, and it was my first experience with sending anything to a different country from Turkey.

Hagia Sophia was my next destination. There was a long queue for visitors and it cost 30 Turkish Lira to enter the place. Hagia Sophia (from the Greek: Ἁγία Σοφία), is a former Greek Orthodox patriarchal basilica (church), later an imperial mosque, and now a museum (Ayasofya Müzesi). From the date of its construction in 537 until 1453, it served as an Eastern Orthodox cathedral and seat of the Patriarchate of Constantinople, except between 1204 and 1261, when it was converted to a Roman Catholic cathedral under the Latin Empire. The building was a mosque from 29 May 1453 until 1931. It was then secularized and opened as a museum in 1935, under the Kemalist government. I had read about its history but my interest in the place was piqued by the documentaries that I had seen and the fact that I had learnt a few basic things about Greek Orthodox church from my lovely Greek friend. She lamented that “It used to be decorated with gold, diamonds etc. and amazing pieces of art” but it had been “Ottomanized” under the Muslim rulers. It is still considered the holiest site for Greek Orthodox christians.It was named after St. Sophia, patron saint of Byzantium/Istanbul. I discovered that only the “Muslim” part of the church was open to general visitors (but I secretly longed to meet the Greek Orthodox priests or members of the church). The first thing to capture my attention upon entering the building was a gold-plated fountain (Sadirvan) in the courtyard. It was built in 1740AD.

The interior portion was baroque, and a weird mix of Christian symbols and Arabic/Islamic calligraphy. I walked to the upper portion of the building for some photography. I was feeling hungry so I ventured out to find something to eat. I wanted to eat something from the Turkish cuisine, but vegetarian in nature. I walked along the tram line from Sultanahmet, crossed the Çemberlitaş station, Beyazıt station and finally decided to sit down at “Izmir Restaurant”. I wanted to taste Turkish Pizza (called Pide), so I ordered a margarita pizza. The server brought few pieces of bread and a mixture of crushed-tomato-and-onion paste. I was flabbergasted for a while, thinking that they had misunderstood my order. I had finished three pieces of bread when the REAL pizza appeared: P. It dawned on me that I had mistook the appetizer for the meal, and had killed at least half of my hunger already. In addition, the pizza was exactly like the ones that I’ve had in Pakistan, so I was slightly disappointed. The meal was not too bad, so at least I had a full meal after all the walks since morning.
On my way back, I enquired about the phone connector from a few shops and it transpired that I had to go to Apple Store Zorlu Centre in Beşiktaş if I wanted the accessory. I had acquired a map of the tram from a volunteer and the tourist information centre in Sultanahmet guided me about which trams to take. I was supposed to change three trains to reach Zorlu Centre. I was desperate enough to get that connector so I decided to give it a go. Took the tram from Sultanahmet, disembarked at Kabataş, and took the Füniküler to Taksim and then the train to Gayreteppe. It involved changing trains, walking (in my case, running) on the escalators and walkways and finding enough room to stand in the trains. It was time for offices to close, so the trains were full of people. After Gayreteppe, one has to walk almost 1.5 Kilometers to reach Zorlu Centre, which is a very modern mall. I had previous experience of Apple Stores in the US so I expected similar customer service. I didn’t have to wait for a store employee to find the connector for me, but during the billing process, his iPhone got stuck! On top of this, he didn’t even know English too well. It was not a disaster in anyway, but I realized that even Apple Stores worked in Turkish ways :P. On the return trip, I lost my way(because the “M” for Metro trains and Metro Buses looks so similar), but eventually reached Sultanahmet without much trouble.

In the hippodrome area, I noticed a specialized Childcare room for all the families that had camped there for Iftaar time. I realized that Turkish government cares for its citizens much more than our government does for us, as I have never seen such facilities at any public place in Pakistan. I also found a father-son duo playing football who included me in their game for a few touches. My new friend from Mexico had told me about Cappadocia so upon reaching the hotel, I looked at ticket prices offered by Turkish Airlines from Istanbul. I was delighted to hear that I could get a discount price return ticket to Cappadocia in 200 Liras. I submit my details online and the ticket was reserved. The only catch was that I was supposed to get the ticket within the next 12 hours. My options were, either go to the airport or find their nearest office. With help of the internet, I found that Turkish Airlines had an office near Taksim. I left the hotel immediately and took the tram to Karakoy, and boarded the Tunel train. I found my Mexican friend in the Tunel and we talked about my ‘adventures’ of the day. She had to meet one of her friends at Fatburger,so I proceeded on my own and walked through Isteklal Street to Taksim. Google Maps and other maps mentioned the location of the Airline office near Divan Hotel. I walked on the Cumhuriyet Caddesi for half an hour, without finding the place. By 10 pm, I was extremely exhausted by the search so I took the train back to my hotel. It was a long, but enriching day.