14 Apr 2011
|13 April - Turkey
An early start but the body clock is still on Shanghai time, so it is not too much of a problem. We head down the road with our packs on to catch a tram (it arrives just as we get there, good timing). We arrive at the train station just as the train to the airport pulls away, but there is another in 20 minutes, so there is time to write some postcards. Bloody expensive to buy and send, so we won’t be doing too much of that. The train to the airport takes about 20 minutes, we check in and then go to international arrivals where we give away our travelpasses as they still have 36 hours on them.
Heading through immigration Cynthea drops her water bottle just before we go through the scanners, so she is a bit flustered, and gets the full search treatment for her trouble. Even her shoes are scanned. We are told there is a money exchange through boarder control, but can’t find it. So we spend our coins on Swiss chocolate (our only souvenir from here!). We head to boarding where we have about an hour to wait. The Swissair flight (Airbus A321) to Istanbul will take about 2 hours 20minutes, and covers 1750km. No inflight entertainment to speak of (no movie, no music, no place to plug headphones into), so we read and snooze and where we can we look out the window at the majestic mountains. There is an airshow on this flight, so we have some idea of where we are. The bloody people in front of us are forever changing their seat position, up and down like a yoyo and it is getting on our nerves. FFS leave the bloody recliner alone.
We arrive in Istanbul after a circuit over the city. It looks so huge from the air and we realise how little we will see while we are here. Some 17 million people call this home. The mix of buildings surprises us.
We land at 1pm local time and once off the plane follow the signs to join a VERY long queue that disappears around the corner. After sometime in this queue we realise it is for visas, which we don’t need, so we follow the passport control signs to find all the counters closed, and nothing to say where we should go. So we head to where we think baggage claim will be, and end up at the cattle yard they call passport control. Bugger all gates are open, and we settle in for a long wait in the humidity. It takes well over an hour to clear immigration, and then we hunt for our bags. But first we need a trolley, Tony cannot find any in our sector, so he goes off to the next section in search of one. Bugger, they are a lira each, and we have no change. A couple of guys are collecting up abandoned ones, and Tony heads for one of them, but they beat him to it. A woman in front with a big bag flashes a smile, and they give her a trolley. Tony tries the same approach, but he is obviously not their type and they hold a hand out for a lira. Tony shows empty pockets, and they shrug and walk away. Tony’s daypack is partly open, someone has had a go at already, but the locks worked well.
We carry our bags to the next checkpoint to declare the contents of Cynthea’s pharmacy, and once again there is no one there, so we head to the green zone (nothing to declare) and find that also unmanned. We walk straight through to find our tour rep. 1 hour 45 minutes after landing we board a minibus to the hotel. Novotel Istanbul is in the old part of town, near the airport. We drive through some very narrow alleyways to get there (we wonder if the driver got lost!), and we arrive at check in to find a group of people there who turn out to be on our tour.
The hotel is luxurious, the big difference between here and China is that although the Chinese had the luxury gear, the installation of it was pretty rough. Istanbul is no comparison, quality stuff and properly fitted, not what we had expected after seeing the shambles in China! Let’s hope this standard keeps up. The room is spacious, we are on the second floor with a view over the sea of Marama. Boats are lining up waiting their turn to pass through the Bosphorus Strait. Boats using the straight have 12 hours to move in one direction, then those waiting at the other end have their turn, so by nightfall there are many vessels lined up waiting. The hotel has a gym, sauna and steam room free to use for guests. Some of the accents of the locals are hard to understand, but we will get used to that, as we did in China.
There is to be a group meeting at 8pm, so we have a couple of hours to kill. A few of the group head into the old town, others head off to relax in the hotel. The outdoor pool is closed until May, so Tony and Cynthea head to the sauna and steam for a while.
At the meeting we meet Burhan, our guide for the trip, and we introduce ourselves. There are thirtyfive on the tour, a mix of Kiwis and Aussies, (some of those living in the UK), and one from Ireland. Hello, there are a couple of ladies from Dunedin, and Cynthea thinks Diane looks familiar. Turns out she lives up the hill from us in Allandale Rd, drives past our place every day, and works in the same health sector, so they have probably crossed paths. Diane also used to be part owner of Southern Hospitality, so we also knew her from when we had the restaurant. Diane works in Ross Home and knows Cheryl and Harvie (Yunca) Bell! Small world just got smaller. Carol is from Waihola, and knows the crib!
We are given instructions – in particular don’t be late to the bus, as you will be left behind. Tap water in Turkey is not drinkable, so we are still on bottled water. There will be a supply on the bus, a 500ml will cost TYL.50/about 45c. We can use tap water to brush teeth, so that is ok. The meals provided on tour will be buffet most times. We are asked that if we go to the market to buy beer, we are to sneak it into the hotel. They tend to get a bit upset that we don’t wont to pay their prices.
After the meeting some go to the hotel restaurant. We tell the staff we are too poor to afford the TYL56/$48 a head for the buffet (the meal for tonight is not included) and we are told that we can choose a half buffet for TYL28/$24 ea. What’s a half buffet? Well you choose either the hot half or the cold half, and dessert is not supposed to be included. No contest really, the hot half included soup, so we figure it is a good deal. And some of us are really good a playing dumb if you get caught with pudding on your plate (some would even say that there are those that don’t have to play that hard at a acting dumb!)
We are happiness filled and have a late night, hitting the wall about 11pm (when the body clock tells us it is 4am!).
14 April – Istanbul
At 1am Hayden sends several texts, thanks for that, but it is a bit early for the wake up call. Tony is awake by 5am, and at 6 cannot get back to sleep so goes to the sauna before breakfast. The day is cool and cloudy, but we figure we will be on the bus so it won’t matter too much. We figured wrong.
Today we tour Istanbul, but the sheer size of means we wont see much of it. We will concentrate on the old town, our heads get filled with so much history that we cannot remember it all, and most information goes in one ear and out the other.
Our bus is huge, 55 seater, brand new, and so big it cannot fit through the narrow alleyways in the areas we have to go to. We have a driver and an assistant as well as a guide on this trip. There is a lot of contrast in this city, not the least being the state of the roads. The new roads are wide and generally pretty good. The standard of driving is not what we have been used to either, and the lack of driving with hand permanently attached to the horn is noticeable. Yes, there are horns sounding from time to time, but nothing like what we had experienced in China. It is still dangerous to cross the road, even when you are allowed to.
Lots of trams in the old city area, another city with a great public transport system. We are in Fatih (pronounced farty, and everyone sniggers). At our first stop we are dropped off at Sultanahmet (The Blue Mosque), built in 1616. It is stunning! We head inside, there are cats everywhere, and one has a sniff at Digby. Shoes must come off at the door, and as we head inside there are notices telling everyone NOT to place their shoes on the floor. Inside the mosque the work is very intricate and beautiful. We head out to the Hippodrome – nothing to do with a zoo, hippo means horse, so this is the old area for the horses, chariot races, and games.
We leave for the next site, and the weather packs up. Ffffairly cold and it starts persisting down. Most of our coats are on the bus, or back at the hotel. The bus won’t meet up with us for a few hours yet, bugger. We are hounded by hawkers yelling "umbrella, umbrella, umbrella", and a few hand over some lira for a cheap brolly that blows inside out with the first gust. Hawkers are following us all the time, there so many of them, and we are all getting the same idea of what we would like to do with their umbrellas!
The grand basilica of Hagia Sophia is nearby and we are soon in the dry admiring the work in what is now a museum, rather than a place of worship. We then head underground to the Cistern Basilica, an ancient underground water tank, complete with huge fish and carved marble fluted columns covering some 500 square metres. The water is shallow these days, and there is a strange column here, at the base is the head of Medusa, but upside down.
We head to a famous eatery, the Pudding Shop, for lunch of fish and kebab. It is still raining heavily, and the hawkers are still trying to sell their bloody umbrellas. The restaurant is packed, and obviously a mecca for tourists. We keep thinking we see people we know (didn’t have that problem in China!), and while sitting with a couple from England Tony thinks she looks like Brenda from Wellington. He is kicking himself for not asking if they are related (turns out they were not).
Next stop is the Topkapi Palace, a lavish palace from the Ottoman Empire. We are taken to many buildings in the palace, but by far the most impressive is the treasury are where many millions (billions?) of dollars worth of jewels, emeralds, rubies, diamonds. There is an impressive pair of solid gold candlestick holders that weight 25kg each! Photos are not allowed and it is strictly enforced, not even Digby’s charms can get us past this one. Tony tries to sneak in a photo anyway and cops an earful from the guard.
We are finally back on the bus, and are taken to the spice market, it is nice to be out of the cold and rain. We spend about an hour wandering through the alleyways. There is so much on display, if only we were staying a while, and had room in the backpacks. Digby is a hit at one stall, and they try to buy him, but he isn’t for sale.
By now we have been walking around the old city for nearly 9 hours, and we are about done in. We thought that we would have more free time to see the city, maybe the bus being too big meant we didn’t have that extra time because we walked to the different sites? Seems unlikely because the distance between them was not a lot. We are cold and tired, so make the decision to head back to the hotel and give the Grand Bazaar a miss. It would have been a sight to see, but we feel that we cannot deal with the crowds and the hassle. There is a sauna calling with the promise of a fast defrost, and a few of us head down to the gym. Afterwards we head to the hotel restaurant for a late dinner, but are disappointed that the buffet is not on at all tonight, so we settle for a light meal. The restaurant is suddenly very noisy. Everyone is getting on really well and we are impressed that there was not a lot of bitching and moaning today, so it seems we have a great crowd on board. Another late night, and we have to be up at 6am to travel to Cappadocia.