A day in Istanbul, all expenses paid, what could be better? At the time, which was 1:30 am, it sounded great, but after sitting for two hours at Ataturk International Airport Starbucks in Istanbul with only fried chicken sandwiches, the “what could be better” list was starting to grow. Despite assurances of being “put you in the city, very close to the Grand Bazaar, no worries sir,” we ended at the airport convention center WOW Hotel, a three-minute bus ride away. At check in, we were told, “you will be picked up at 9:00 pm and you must check out at 7 pm!” Apparently, there was a Baklava Conference due to hit down later tonight and they needed the rooms. With it past 4 am, Zen prevailed and I said, “that’s cool.” We drifted off to our rooms with meal vouchers and Ethernet cables in hand.
Each room at the WOW Hotel came with its own Mini Mart I kid you not! In addition to the standard compliment of drinks and snacks, there was a bevy of business traveler friendly items. Wearable inventory included boxers, panties, socks, panty hose, and singlets. As for personal hygiene, there were shaving kits, deodorant, dental implements, and even breath mints. And for those feeling a little randy, condoms and Turkish Viagra (figs stuffed with almonds and covered with honey, condoms).
Tang, it’s still for breakfast and it’s green and even clear! After rocketing off into outer space in the 1960s, it obviously landed at some point in Turkey. Who knew? Add a Simit, a sesame encrusted bread ring, some olives, a few ripe tomatoes, and a few cubes of sheep’s milk cheese and you’ve got a Turkish Breakfast.
By checking out at Noon and stowing our bags, we missed the 7 pm eviction. We figured the 9 pm pick up was more like a guideline. Rushing to catch the Noon shuttle to the Grand Bazaar, we discovered the first was 50 meters away at WOW Hotel Tower #2 to pick up pre-conference baklava attendees. After ten minutes, just as the driver was lighting up his second cigarette, we legged it for the elevated train stop 500 meters away.
An estimated 250,000+ riders use Istanbul’s tram system each day. At the Zeytinburnu station, we transferred to the tram and encountered at least half the daily ridership. Twelve stops later and several failed attempts at conversation, apparently Jakarta does not make the local news much, we arrived at the Grand Bazaar. The Bazaar dates from 1461 and is still one of the largest covered markets in the world. Clothes, hand bags, carpets, luggage, cafes, jewelry, more jewelry, pipes and assorted smoking paraphernalia, spices, tea, tea paraphernalia, and of course Turkish delight make up the primary offerings.
We fought our way onto a wave a people heading in, but we quickly veered off the main path only to meet Ishmael, a purveyor of fine Turkish Carpets. Two cups of tea and several hundred dollars later, we departed with an 80-year-old Caucasian carpet. Note to reader, bargaining is different in Istanbul. It is not the usual back and forth, best price, lowest price, special friend price, or first sale of the day price. It is a slow process of discussion where a price is mutually agreed. Neither side is insulted and both parties part as “friends.” We learned Ishmael’s brother lived seven years in Queens. He was Mesopotamian and that his people had no interest in fighting, ever. At the end of our first cup of tea, Ishmael finally felt comfortable enough with us to move on this price. Several pieces of Turkish delight and into our second cup of tea, a price was agreed upon. Hands were shook, the carpet was wrapped, a brief discussion about smuggling ensued, and we agreed to return to view more carpets at a very vague later date.
Tea, when in Turkey, I highly recommend it. The cups, the saucers, the lemon, and the lumps of sugar, it’s all about the accompaniments. Skip the sugar cube and invest in a few pieces of baklava. The bitterness of the tea complements baklava nicely. I suggest sitting outside anywhere sipping and people watching. And take it slow; you can easily overdose on baklava.
The Blue Mosque was to be our next stop. Unfortunately, our strategy of turning right at every mosque did not get us anywhere and we ended right back at the Grand Bazaar, i.e., a lot of mosques. We did enjoy ourselves in though, in the two-hour journey, we stopped, shopped, chatted, and even bought a few items. Oh yes, there was tea drinking. If you can afford the time of just wandering, I highly recommend doing so in the Old Town. It’s a gorgeous walk of Byzantine and Ottoman architecture, with a few new pieces of modernist architecture mixed in, and of course several architectural calamities where old and new collided.
We did eventually make it to the Blue Mosque after a short tram ride. We did the obligatory photo shoot and struck out for the Bosporus! Walking past Topkapi Palace, which I recommend you do visit if you possess the time; we entered what appeared to be the commercial epicenter of Istanbul. Everyone other shop was either selling Baklava, Turkish Delight, tea, Italian coffee, or some combination there of. What spaces cafes did not occupy, souvenir shops stood ready to assist you, as one shopkeeper put it, “how can I take your money?” One innovative risk taker offered us very attractive Adidas tracksuits for 20 Lira. We were tempted; unfortunately there was already a long queue for his fitting room, i.e., the back seat of his car. We knew even with a good fit, exchanges would be difficult.
The Bosporus was amazingly blue. While I have stood in Asia and Europe on the same day, thank you modern aviation, never have I been to both continents within 30 minutes. If only I could walk to the three other continents I have not yet visited. Back at the Bosporus, tour buses, trams, trucks, and ferries continuously landed waves of people on the two continents. We were in awe of the vehicle/passenger ferries that seemingly unloaded and reloaded 50+ vehicles and hundreds of passengers in less than 15 minutes. Good old fashion hustle, it’s something of a lost art. And we paid our respects to the Orient Express, which passed away in 2009, at Sirkeci Terminal.
After a day of snacking on Turkish delight, baklava, salted Apples, salted watermelon, ice cream, fresh pomegranates, figs, pitas, and nuts, we were in dire need of sustenance. Unfortunately, strawberry tarts appeared and necessitated a reverse dinner. A peanut crust laced with chocolate, topped off with cream, and then covered by strawberries. Many a lactose challenged would run for the nearest baklava stand. Luckily the pastry chef, Erman, and I came to an understanding.
Two tarts later, we collapsed at the Bither Cafe. Yes, it was touristy but after eight hours of being on the move we could care less. Two Efes Pilsen’s later, we made our dinner selections: puff pastry stuffed with chicken and chilies, lamb stew, egg plant stuff with figs, peppers stuffed with eggplant, and rice. Of course not everyone in Bither was up for adventure dining. To our immediate right, two children and their father were sporting plates of spaghetti and rice. While not my first choice, I can sympathize immensely having over adventure dined myself in the past. We toasted our gracious host, Bither. He in turn assisted us with a few photos. And we agreed to return, again very vague on the timeline.
We jumped the tram right outside the Bither and lucked out by securing seats. Although I sat ready to give up my seat to someone more deserving, the other half of Istanbul’s 250,000+ a day tram riders piled on at the next station and effectively trapped us in our seats for the next fourteen stops. Note to reader, the vast majority of Istanbul’s public transport riders are in fact men. We arrived at WOW Hotel, secured our bags, translated a little Chinese for the staff (Chinese pastry chefs checking in for the baklava convention), and found Turkish Airlines were nowhere to be found. Guidelines, got to love ‘em!