I had the opportunity to go to
This travelogue is based on my personal experiences and
impressions, which are heavily colored by being in
Special thanks to Durmuş for helping me proofread this document.
Sunday, March 17
The plane pulled up to the gate, and I was pleased to get
off the plane through a jetway that led directly into the terminal instead of
getting off the plane onto a bus and driving 400 meters/yards to the
The airport bus to
I went to the last stop,
My hotel was on Istiklal Caddesi (the C is pronounced like an American J), a pedestrian street off Taksim Square. Walking down it I felt like I was in Europe. The street is very narrow and full of cobblestones, and is closed to cars. There is a trolley that runs on Istiklal from Taksim Square to another type of public transportation called the Tünel (which I’ll describe in more detail later).
On Istiklal there were lots of clothing stores and music stores and bookshops. One bookshop had a large Harry Potter book display. They had all the books in the series including the one I haven’t read yet (Goblet of Fire), but unfortunately for me the books were available only in Turkish. It was like being in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”—water, water, everywhere and not a drop to drink. There were also many Turkish restaurants on this street. Many of the restaurants were cafeteria-style, with very attractive looking, stylish (yes, stylish) meat and vegetable dishes in the window. The dessert shops were even more impressive—not only baklava but also sweets drowned in dark chocolate and fancy cakes…I think I gained 5 pounds just from looking in the windows. Other stores had nuts and dried fruits in bulk.
I also have to say that there were more American fast food places than I’ve ever seen in Ukraine. Burger King, Dunkin Donuts, and Schlotsky’s Deli all had space on Istiklal. Pizza Hut was around the corner off Taksim. If I had been coming from America I would have groaned at the sight of this fast food globalization. Coming from Ukraine, though, I saw these as old friends whom I hadn’t seen in many months welcoming me home.
I checked into the hotel, and saw some of my colleagues in the lobby who were preparing to go to dinner in about 10 minutes. I wanted to go with them, but a higher priority for me was getting into the room and taking a long hot shower. Not only because I hadn’t had a shower since Saturday night, but also because I hadn’t had a Western shower in three months. By the time I had showered and come back downstairs, my colleagues were gone. I decided to take the trolley up Istiklal and try to find a place to eat. I ended up choosing Hala, a Turkish restaurant that had two women in the window working to make yufka. Yufka is a very thin bread, like a crepe, that is filled with potato, goat cheese, or other savory fillings. The women were working very hard to roll out large pieces of the dough and then baking them on a flat round stove. I had potato yufka, and something that in English was called “pan kebab” (probably called çoban kavurma in Turkish). It was small squares of meat that were seasoned and served in a sizzling pan over a bed of rice, with a basket of sliced bread on the side. It was really more food than I could eat but both dishes looked so good I couldn’t resist. Plus the price was out of this world—1,000,000 TL for the yufka and 2,500,000 TL for the pan kebab. The service was friendly and attentive, and the server and management spoke English. The menu was also in English. After dinner I had two glasses of çay (prounounced like “chai”), the Turkish word for tea. Turkish çay is served in small glasses that have no handles and curve inwards on both sides near the top of the glass. It’s not a handle, though, because you are supposed to hold the glass at the very top with your thumb and index finger. I was not charged by the restaurant for either glass of tea, which surprised me.
After dinner I started walking back to the hotel. There is a mosque on Istiklal, and on the way
back to my hotel I heard the sounds of the call to prayer. Near the hotel I saw a series of telephone
booths and a kiosk selling telephone cards.
I wanted to call some people to let them know I was alive. I went to the woman at the kiosk and asked,
“Do you speak English?” She said in
English, “No, what?” Hoping she was
joking with her answer, I tried to ask how much it costs to call the
Monday, March 18
I had breakfast in the hotel since it was included in the
room price. There was a variety of
pastries, eggs, sausage, meats, fruits, juices, tea, and coffee. I had turkey in
We left the hotel as a group at and walked down a very steep, narrow hill to a
downtown center for
had a tea-and-schmooze break (which one man who had worked for many years in
For lunch we walked through a pedestrian tunnel filled with
cell phone and electronics dealers to a street on Karaköy. Based on the location of two large ships on
the map and in my mind, I’m presuming the street is Rihtim Caddesi. There were
many fish restaurants on this
harborside street, and many people trying to invite us to come and eat in their
restaurant. A group of us decided to go
into the restaurant Olympiat. The table
was on the second floor with large windows that had a view of the other side of
It was a multilingual lunch, as a few people knew Turkish
from their previous assignments in
After the second half of the conference, I was invited to
join a group of colleagues on a ferry
ride along the Bosphorus. I had
wanted to cross the Bosphorus to stand on the Asian continent (
Beata and I, who had shared a taxi, started walking down
Istiklal to our hotel. I wanted to eat;
Beata wanted a snack. We stopped at Hala
again, and ordered a snack from the window on the other side of the entrance
from the window where the women were making yufka. I don’t know the name of the dessert, but it
was fried pieces of dough covered in sweet sugary syrup. I’m not sure I would eat that again. Then we stopped in at a kebab
restaurant. Beata had a soup which
looked very good, but I have no idea what it was. I decided to try iskender kebab. This kebab
was slices of meat in a red sauce on a bed of small pieces of bread. There was a serving of yoğurt (yogurt) on the side.
I usually don’t like plain yogurt, and I don’t usually eat meat with
yogurt. But this yogurt was different.
Maybe it wasn’t as sweet or sour as the yogurt we eat in
After dinner we stopped at a store and tried helva, a type of dessert made from
peanuts. It’s like a hard form of peanut
butter. I had tried it in
We walked down one alleyway with döner stands and small
tables of goods. It was here that I had
my first bargaining experience. I saw a set of 6 Turkish tea glasses and
plates. I saw a price of 9,900,000
TL. I asked the man (in English) if that
was the price for the whole set of 6. He
said it was. This surprised me; in
One would think this would be the time to call it a day, but
the evening was still young, and since I had heard from someone that the movies in
Tuesday, March 19
The morning started with the same routine—breakfast and
meetings. After the meeting Beata and I
decided to walk across the bridge to the Spice
Bazaar (Mısır Çarşısı). I
wanted to go at my own pace, so Beata and I split up once we got to the
market. I saw mounds of saffron, red
pepper, curry powder, and herbs for tea.
If I were a better cook I’m sure I would have bought up these
spices. I also saw arts and crafts and
amazing textiles like plush towels for a dollar and silk pillowcases and even
belly dancing outfits. I was trying to
limit what I had to carry home to
Near the Spice Bazaar is the Yeni Camii (“New” Mosque, built in the late 16th/early 17th century). In the courtyard was a station where men were washing their feet and faces and hands before entering the mosque for prayer. The courtyard was open and full of marble and Arabic signs and tile paintings. I felt the presence of a higher power there.
I met Beata again and after getting a little turned around in and around the underground passageways, we walked back across the bridge. I decided to take the Tünel, a kind of funicular that goes through a tunnel to one end of Istiklal Caddesi, steps away from the hotel. The price was a mere 500,000 TL. Beata preferred to walk so we split up again.
After taking the Tünel I went walking again up Istiklal to
find some fresh baklava. Many of the
stores, however, were already closed. I
realized later that everyone was home watching the big football/soccer game
between Galatsaray and Roma. A little boy started following me and asking in
English if he could shine my shoes. I
told him I wasn’t interested, but he kept persisting and saying that I had
never had them shined before and that I could pay “what I wanted”. That was mistake number one. Never let anyone do anything for you until
you have agreed upon the price. He
started shining my shoes and a group of his “colleagues” came over and started
asking me questions—where are you from, what do you do, etc. Here I probably made mistake number two,
being honest (albeit cautiously) about the fact that I was an English teacher
Wednesday, March 20
After the same breakfast and meetings routine, I went to lunch on my own at a small café. I thought it was strange that I was the only woman in this café. I wondered if I was in an industrial area, or if women don’t generally eat out. (My Turkish friends tell me my assumptions were right, and that my appearance would have been even less normal in a smaller city.) I wasn’t going to let it stop me, though. I had a meal for 4,500,000 TL of chicken noodle soup (excellent), döner meat on a bed of rice with a few French fries, and a dessert whose name I don’t know. It was a small square of a white, chewy, sweet, substance topped with cinnamon. I would eat it again.
In the afternoon, a colleague was organizing a taxi ride to Migros, a large
supermarket chain in
At this point you may be wondering why I paid over 7 dollars
to go to a supermarket. Because that’s
where the food is. There were Western
delicacies I can’t get in
We went back to the hotel in one taxi (less than 9 million
TL). On the way one colleague told the story of buying a carpet for $130 even
though she wasn’t planning on buying one.
I decided at that point not to look at carpets. They are heavy to take
to and from
When we got back to the hotel, I freshened up and then we
went as a big group to Doğa Fish
restaurant. When we walked in we saw
different salads and appetizers, which we were supposed to pick before going
upstairs. The grand irony is that in
We went up to our table on the 8th floor, where
there was an amazing night view of Topkapı (the Sultan’s palace), the
mosques, and the general city lights. I
don’t remember all of the appetizers.
One was a stuffed grape leaf (dolma).
There was octopus and another cold fish salad. There was a long green log-like food
(?). Most of the appetizers were
delicious. Unfortunately, there were
many kinds of greens downstairs that were not included on our plate. There was a second appetizer course of fried
calamari and spiced shrimp. Then there
was a prolonged wait for the fish, which was either served grilled or
fried. Desert was marinated fruit. The
tea took so long to arrive that some people went home before it arrived because
it was after 11 and they were sleepy.
That meant I got a cup of someone else’s cherry tea as well as my own
cup of regular tea. The cherry tea was
excellent; I see why fruit tea is so popular in
Thursday, March 21
This was meant to be the one full day to enjoy
By now it was already after . Beata still wanted to see Ayasofya, but my top priority was Topkapı so once again I suggested we split up. The carpet guide offered to walk me to the entrance of the palace. I said I could see it was just down the hill but he pointed out that that entrance was closed for repairs. I could see a metal wall covering what looked like a gate so I thought he was telling the truth, but I was still wary about following him. My travel agent had warned me that Turkish men can be come on strong with women, and the fact that we were walking down a quiet, empty neighborhood street didn’t make me feel any better. I probably walked a foot and half away from him to protect myself. I wasn’t expecting the come on to be an economic or a business one. When we go to the palace entrance, he spoke in Turkish to a man and said his friend was a tour guide and would be happy to give me a tour of the palace. I sensed a setup and a kickback. The tour guide tried to assure me that he barely knew the carpet salesman, that they just say hello to each other on the street. Nevertheless, I didn’t want the expense of a tour guide especially under those circumstances. I walked through the gates to the proper ticket entrance, but the main sight, the harem, was closed until . I decided to walk towards Sultanahmet (the Blue Mosque) and see that instead. On the way I stopped at a cart for simit (pronounced smit), a round bread with a large hole in it, like an untwisted soft pretzel. It was pretty good for 300,000 TL.
When I got to Sultanahmet, I found it was also closed until . On
the street nearby, though, there was some kind of festival with music. I’m not sure if it was related to Navruz (a
New Year holiday observed in
At I followed the signs for the “tourist entrance” to the mosque. When I got there, I saw a list of rules in English about wearing long skirts, covering your head, and not taking pictures. As I looked at my jeans and realized I had forgotten my scarf, I didn’t think I would be able to get in. But a “kind man” waiting at the entrance said, “oh, don’t worry about that. You can come in. You can take pictures. I’ll help you.” He instructed me to take off my shoes and put them in a special plastic bag. He then gave me knit booties to put on my feet. (Note: if someone does tries to do this to you, take your shoes and run like hell.) We walked into the mosque and he said he could tell me some things about the mosque and I could pay “as I like” (another mistake of mine to accept those terms). He told me how many tiles were on the walls and he did tell me an interesting story about the number of minarets (there are six). The Sultan reportedly asked the architect for a gold (altın) minaret. But the architect misunderstood and built six (altı) minarets instead. Lucky for him, the sultan was pleased.
I took a few pictures and then at the end the man asked for 10 million TL—5 for the tour, and 5 for the socks. I offered to give him the socks back; he said I’d already worn them. I thought his price was highway robbery, but I felt guilty (what a fool I was!) and felt I should pay him something, and I didn’t have any smaller bills. So I gave it to him. Then on top of that he had the nerve to invite me out for tea (I assume as a date). I declined. I was so mad when I got outside that after I put on my shoes I decided to keep the plastic bag instead of putting it in the container because I felt for the price I had paid it should be included in the deal. But another man in the mosque court stopped me and said in English, “Lady, you can’t take that bag. That not nice.” I felt really bad about that and of course I apologized and went back and put the plastic bag in the container.
As I was walking away from the palace, a man stopped me and said hello. He said, “don’t worry, I’m not a guide.” Then he happened to mention that he had a little carpet store…I told him I had all the carpets I needed (which was zero), and quickly walked back towards Topkapı.
I entered the palace gate again, paid the 7,000,000 TL
entrance fee, and began walking around.
I saw the
After the tour of the harem, I walked up the hill to the
tramvay stop. On the street I ran into
carpet salesman number one again, who tried once more to convince me to look
inside his store. I declined again and
went on the tram two stops to go to the Kapalı
Çarşı (Covered or Grand Bazaar), which has been in
I passed the men trying to convince me to come in their
store to look at clothes and leather coats, and started looking at purses. A man working in one shop started speaking
Hebrew to me, thinking I was from
Feeling exhausted, I bought some smaller souvenirs for which I didn’t have to haggle, and got on the tram back to Eminönü. I walked across the bridge and took the Tünel back to the hotel. I didn’t want to remember Istanbul as one long line of salesman and rogue tour guides, so I decided to go to one place where I knew I would get a good reasonable meal and have a good memory of Istanbul—Hala restaurant. This time I tried the “Hala soup”, which was a red broth with spices that I couldn’t identify. I then had mantı, which is often compared with ravioli. It is small pieces of meat in a dough (not square like ravioli, but small and round) covered in a spiced olive oil and yogurt sauce. It was absolutely delicious, and only cost 1,000,000 TL.
I went back to the hotel and decided to unwind with a little Rakı, the national liqueur. It is also known as “Lion’s Milk” because when you add water to it the drink becomes cloudy like milk. It was expensive to drink it from the hotel, but it was comfortable and I could watch some Turkish TV and write postcards. They have their version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire”, but because of Turkish inflation the smallest award is 50 million TL and the largest award is 500 billion TL.
In the final analysis then, I left with three images of