Friday, May 15, 2009

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly...

Our last full day in Istanbul had only two items on the agenda. A visit to Topkapi Palace and to hit the Grand Bazaar for The Big Score.

One of these tasks went off pretty well, the other...

Despite an early start our guide quickly let us know that this wasn't going to be pretty. Two large cruise ships had pulled into port the night before. He counted about thirty tour buses in the immediate area and more pouring in. But that wasn't the fun part. Apparently THAT day was "Lets bring every goddamn school kid in Istanbul to Topkapi Palace day".


There were thousands of 'em. The place was thick with them. When I had visited 7 years ago in February my friend and I wandered the grounds with few others in sight. We strolled through the treasury rooms at a liesurely pace, taking our time. This time every building, every room was choked with people. I eventually gave up and sat outside, sending Rossana to see some of the wonders of the palace that was once the heart of the Ottoman Empire. She's wanted to see this place ever since watching a 1970's film of the same name. She was very dissapointed. It wasn't the Palace that dissapointed, just the crush of people. I did manage to meake a friend though. A pretty orance cat came by looking for food, but when he saw I had none he determined that I might still be good for something and promptly climbed into my lap.

We left the area and were led to one of the entrances of the Grand Bazaar. We were told the bus would leave in 2 hours. 2 HOURS?? We knew that that wasn't going to work for us. But we also couldn't stay too long as traffic could very likely trap us as the afternoon wore on. We headed off, having taken note of the exact route to take to the street of the scarf sellers. Then we promptly got turned all the hell around. The Grand Bazaar isn't just a large collection of streets that go in all directions, there are levels. Streets, passageways, gates, alleys and ramps. We backtracked slightly and I took us down a road that I SWORE went downhill last time I was there but was now uphill. I proved to be right and we at last found the shop we had visited two weeks earlier.

The young man we had spoken to recornized us immedielty. (I wonder how many firery red-heads he gets accompanied by 6'2" Arab types). No haggling needed to be done. We set about finding what we wanted. It quickly became apparent to our man that we were very serious and that picking out 1 or 2 items at a time was too slow. We found a color and he sent a minion to get us a stack of ten. When we looked at the velvet scarves he beconed us upstairs to his private stock room where we poured over dozens of designs and colors. When something wasn't available a boy was sent to his other shop to fetch it. When we were finished there was a serious pile of scarves and pashminas on the large table in his shop. He sent his boy off for the last items and he offered us tea, which is the custom of the Turkish people everywhere.

We did some number crunching using a calculator plus my iphone for currency and weight conversions. Then we counted eveything up. Our man started to pull out bags to put the stacks of scarves in but we waved him off. Rossana pulled out her uber duffle bag and rolled it out on the table with a flourish, much to the suprise of the owners. We began loading our goods and counting up money. I had stupidly left a wad of Turskish Lira in my shirt pocket that morning but we managed to scrape up what me needed and cram everything into the duffle. I noticed that a LOT of small merchants had wireless credit card machines now. Last time I visited we had to get a friend of a friend to run a card. Always a dicey proposition. We stuck with cash though because there would be no extra fees for either party.

Almost all of this was done without any of us being able to speak the others language.

I hefted the duffel onto my shoulder and we set out to get something to eat. Although there were other shops on the street we simply had no more room and we were getting worried about weight. Going over our weight allowance could lead to serious fees.

We grabbed some small souveneers and had to come up with a plan to get back across the Golden Horn and to our Hotel in Taksim. Istanbul is a massive city some 65 miles from side to side and as such has a lot of commuters. Luckily this means they have a very good mass transit system. We found a tram platform and with some pointing and maps were directed to the right tram. It was very crowded but much faster than trying to cross any of the bridges by bus or car. In a short time were over the bridge and somewhere closer to our hotel. We flagged down a taxi who rushed down back steeets to avoid the ever thickening city traffic. We made it back just in time to dump our booty, change into clean clothes and head out for our farewell dinner.

Back home

Long flight from Turkey, miserable flight from JFK. Got some solid sleep and am just starting to look at the pile of crap to do.

I'll post about our last day in Istanbul and our mission in the grand bazaar later. There's a lawn that needs mowin'.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Back in Istanbul

We only has a short time in Bursa, the cradle of the Ottoman Empire. One of the cities chief products is silk (in addition to ceramics and fighter jets). We hit the 15th century silk bazaar and got to work. I'd like to tell you that we sat in a small shop in the oldest part of the bazaar, the Han, sipping tea with a old Turkish man wearing a well worn Fez.

Alas, this was not the case. The shop we settled on was fairly modern looking, and our contact was a young woman in Bell Bottoms. (Oh, and the Fez has been illegal in Turkey since 1924). Still she was a good bargainer and we walked away with over 50 silk scarves and wool pashminas. We left the bazaar which exits near the 13th century Grand Mosque just as the afternoon call to prayer began.

"I like the way we get to shop" I said to my wife, smiling.

We did the tourist thing today, visiting Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. Both are beautiful buildings. I learned a few new things, but the crowds were a real distraction. We ate at the legendary Pudding Shop where the owner notices me taking picturess of some of the old photos and letters on the wall.

"Where you from?" the older man at ther register asked.

"From America."

"Why you..?" he made the picture taking motion.

"This the the famouse Pudding Shop. I read about it in a book. Magic Bus. All the hippies started out for India and Nepal from here. I've only seen Turkey this trip, but I wanted to eat here in their memory."

He smiled knowingly and reached behind the counter. He handed me some postcards with the Pudding Shop on the front along with the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia. There were also two stickers touting the 'World Famous' restaurant. He shook my hand warmly. "Good travels". I left very geeked.

We took a cruise on the Bosporus to see some of the many Sultans palaces and other buildings that line this historic seaway.

Later, we crawled through Istanbul trafic to our hotel. The last time we did this we flew across in record time, then we remembered it was May Day, the day of the riots.

Tomorrow is the Topkapi palace and the one BIG chance to buy everything we've been holding back on. And we have to do in in a narrow window of time or we'll get trapped in the same traffic we did today. Right now we're sitting in our room roasting. No AC and no breeze outside the window. We're testing the capacity of our luggage to see how best to pack. Already some clothes have been jettisoned, more will go tomorrow.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Little things

A long haul today from Cappadocia to Ankora. We left the ancient silk road and traveled north and west along the "Kings Road", the route Alexander the Great took on his hit world tour. We passed lake Tuz, a massive seasonal lake that is only 2 inches deep and stained red with plankton.

In Ankora we visited the Mausoleum of Mustapha Kemal better known as Attaturk, the founder of the republic. The large marble buildings are inspired by the Hittites and surrounded by a large wooded space. After that, the Anatolean Museum.

Very tired. I think my brain is full.

Here are some observations. Nothing detailed, just things I have noticed during my time here:

  • Turkey has embraced energy efficiency. Every bulb I've seen has been a CFT. Often, the lobby and hallways of our hotels are unlighted until late afternoon.

  • Their selection of candy and junkfood is quite good.

  • Imams are not allowed to wear their clerical robes outside the Mosque. Sounds great right? Go secular state! But wait, Imams are actually civil servants. Tax money actually pays them a salary (though it doesn't pay for Mosques). This blew my mind at first and seems a complete contradiction. But think of it like this, how many civil servants do you know who are fanatical about their job? It makes a bizzare sense.

  • The roads are pretty good here and the drivers are not maniacs. I could feel pretty confident renting a car here and driving it, even in the city.

  • Turks like to keep their vehicles clean. I've seen taxi drivers washing their cars lovingly.

  • I think its forbidden to show people smoking on tv. I saw a movie a few nights ago and they blurred out a characters hand as he smoked a pipe. Wierd.

  • Youtube is blocked in Turkey

  • Most homes use a passive solar water heater. A large tank sits on the roof and feeds water through a dark glass panel then into the house. These tanks are on the roofs of both the poor and the middle class

  • When touring Cappadocia our guide 'Mus' told us that some of "Return of the Jedi" was filmed here. This, I knew, was complete B.S. but I just checked the web anyway. I am not sure how big a geek that makes me.