December 20th, 2008 – by: sayohat
Taking the ferry across the Sea of Marmara
İsmail skipped the first few hours of work to take me to the bus stop and hang out at a patisserie while I waited for my bus to the large city of Bursa, some five hours south of İstanbul. It was hard to say goodbye but soon I was off on yet another adventure. A shuttle bus took me from the bus company office in Kartal to the station where the actual bus would depart from. The bus was more like a tour bus and certainly a pleasantly shocking change from the cattle car buses I took in Central Asia. There was even an attendant who smiled and served water, tea and cake! With service like this I could have traveled across the country! As it was the ride was much shorter than I had planned, taking only over two hours (I had calculated from downtown İstanbul, but we left from the Kartal municipality).
On the way we crossed an inlet of the Sea of Marmara from Gebze to Yalova. It was cold and windy but there were some pleasant views and the ferry itself was interesting just because it was the size of a cruiseship.
Friday prayer time at the Ulu Cami
A large, sprawling city of more than a million and a relatively affluent populace, Bursa had become my second destination in Turkey. I arrived to a mammoth bus station next to a recently built IKEA megastore. This was just a taste of what I could call Bursa Elite. Since I had pulled into town earlier than expected, I hung out at the bus station until I could reach my host.
Osa teaches English at a private high school and was in classes all day. Luckily her cleaning lady was at her apartment and could let me in, so I took a bus to a sparkling clean neighborhood called Nilüfer in the İhsaniye district of Bursa. I spent the afternoon hanging out at Osa's without a key until she got back from school. It was actually nice to relax and not have to brave the cold weather. Her two cats--Dominic and Sylvester--kept me company. I enjoyed a bowl of cornflakes for lunch, which was an unusual treat. I couldn't remember when I'd last had a bowl of cereal!
Inside the Ulu Cami (after prayers)
When Osa finally got home we began chatting instantly. It turns out she had been staying with her aunt in Maryland just before she moved to Bursa in October. She explained that her contract with the school included housing but although the apartment was nice it was too big for her and not very cozy.
I agreed that I wasn't sure if I should sit in the living room because it looked so formal. I had to stop again to contrast the differences between the sterile living room here and the various places I stayed in the 'stans. Later that evening Adrienne, one of Osa's English teaching colleagues, came over for tea. We ate some leftover spaghetti with spicy sauce and chatted away the evening.
Bursa clock tower...looks a little crooked!
In the morning I ventured to Bursa's downtown, a completely different feel than İhsaniye. Bursa's efficient and modern metro system, the Bursa Ray, took me seven stops to Şehreküstü station where I ambled up cobbled streets to one of the city's star attractions: the Ulu Cami, or Great Mosque. Before actually reaching it I stopped for another delicious brunch consisting of a meat and vegetable dish with an egg on top and a side of bulgur and chickpeas.
By the time I reached Ulu Cami it was nearing noon and since it was Friday that meant the main prayer service. A frenzy of people huddled around a marble fountain to perform the foot-washing. On one side of the mosque there must have been a couple hundred men kneeling together like sardines. I tiptoed around the area and on through the adjacent covered bazaars and lost myself amongst the many stalls of souvenirs, clothes, shoes and fabrics. Two of the markets contained a central open courtyard where some men sat drinking tea and others were washing their feet for a less crowded venue for praying. On the upper floors the shops were mostly deserted and I was surprised that hardly any of the vendors bothered to invite me in to their store. Eventually I decided to take advantage of the situation as well as the post-holiday sales (one of the biggest holiday seasons had just ended the day I arrived in Turkey) to start buying some gifts and souvenirs.
View of downtown Bursa
After I had purchased some coin purses, shawls, Turkish towels (what do you know, they actually are made here) and silk scarves I emerged to see that the prayer service was over but there still remained an air of reverence about the place despite the fact that it was quite abuzz with activity. The Ulu Cami is located on Atatürk Caddesi, one of the main streets in town.
Mausoleum of Osman Gazi, the first sultan of the Ottoman Empire
After my impulsive encounter with consumerism, I decided to continue with that theme and headed to the shopping mall down the road where I broke down and bought a Starbucks coffee. Believe it or not but it's really hard to find a decent cup of coffee here. Other than Starbucks and a few specialty shops in the big city, they have two options: Nescafe or Turkish coffee, neither of which has the same effect as a regular mug of java.
Coffee in one hand, shopping bags in the other and a backpack on, I walked up a steep hill called Tophane for some magnificent views of the massive cityscape. There at the top of Tophane were the mausolea of the first two sultans of the Ottoman Empire, Osman I and Orhan I. Also a historical and picturesque clock tower that was unforuntately closed for climbing. Around Tophane there were many crooked hilly streets darting in all directions and although they begged to be explored, I was supposed to meet Osa back at the apartment and I wasn't sure how long it would take to get there so I started walking back down the hill the long way. I passed a couple mosques including the large Muradiye complex, but didn't stop. Just past the large soccer stadium where the Bursa Alligators play I found a metro station to take me back.
View of Çekirge from Matt's window
A festive atmosphere in downtown Bursa
After eating an atom sandwich (basically a Turkish sub with roast beef), Osa and I met up with another friend of hers, Suzanne, and her son. We had tea and coffee at a chic modern cafe in Osa's neighborhood, chatting about life in Bursa. The cappucchino I ordered came with a beautiful design on top and looked so good I didn't want to ruin the artwork! I hung out for a few hours before leaving for Çekirge to meet up with another Couchsurfer and English teacher, Matt. He met me at the bus stop and we walked a short way down a hill to his flat where I met his brand new roommate Michael and a Turkish friend that went by the name of Typhoon, and Typhoon's girlfriend. His Irish roommate Shane popped in a few minutes later and eventually their Colombian friend Catharin came over and suddenly it was a mini house party.
We just hung out, drank beers--oddly enough my first since I got to Turkey--and chatted about traveling, teaching English in Turkey and music among other things. It was unusual for me to be in a room with so many English-speaking people and kind of like being back in college for a moment. Matt let me crash on his couch since it was late and the buses stopped running around midnight.
Şehreküstü Square and lots of pigeons!
The morning of December 20th I woke up quite late and looked out Matt's huge living room window with a nice view of lower Çekirge but also the dismal sight of rain. After I left I walked around for a little bit but because of the rain I didn't feel much like exploring. Çekirge was known for its hammams and thermal baths but as I didn't plan on indulging this time I just headed back to Osa's for another low-key afternoon.
Near her apartment I found the Internet cafe and finally set up a Skype account so I can make international calls over the computer. I can't believe it took me so long to do it. It's easy, cheap and other than having a personal conversation in public it's great! The guy working at the cafe/video store suggested I go on the cable car, so with that in mind I planned my next and last day in Bursa.
Atatürk Statue in Heykel area
This time I started the day at the Heykal area, which was the opposite direction I hadn't yet taken from Ulu Cami. A large statue (heykal in Turkish) of Atatürk marked the namesake of the area and from there a road crossed over an arched bridge and slightly uphill towards another of Bursa's highlights, the Yeşil Cami and Yeşil Türbe ("green mosque" and "green mausoleum").
Unfortunately the mausoleum was closed but the exterior was easily visible and next door the Yeşil Cami was open for visitors. It was dark inside but with the help of a flash I was able to see the tilework in some of the side rooms. I continued walking uphill past a cemetery that straddled both sides of the road. I didn't see the tomb, but supposedly the man responsible for inventing the famous İskender kebap (here it's just called Bursa kebap or yoğurtlı kebap) is buried here. Adjacent to one part of the cemetery was the Emir Sultan mosque, a place of pilgrimage as he was a Muslim scholar and son-in-law of a sultan. The mosque was on a high point overlooking a portion of the city below and clearly revered as an import site.
Yeşil Türbe (under renovations)
I escaped some persistent beggars and wandered back down the street in search of a place to have a late lunch. Since I hadn't yet tried the famous kebap, I decided that's what I was going to have. It took awhile to find a cafe that served one though, but I happened upon a restaurant that served up a heaping portion. It was very good but probably more food than I needed. For those unschooled in kebaps, the İskender is slices of shawarma beef on top of cubed pieces of pide bread, smothered in sauce and served with yogurt and hot peppers.
The friendly waiter showed me how to get from the restaurant to the road that goes uphill to the teleferik, or cable car. Luckily I found a bus going in that direction and in no time I was buying my return ticket for the cable car trip.
There are two stations before reaching the top of Uludağ mountain. After 15 minutes a group of about 8 people got on the old cable car and we began to ascend. This afforded even more grand views of the city, though there was some fog and the visibility became zero about halfway to the first station stop, but snow was visible on the treetops. The only purpose for the station is to switch cable cars, so after waiting in the cold for a few minutes we hopped on another car and continued our ascent. The top station's sign read 1634 meters and up there it was foggy with light flurries. I couldn't see much besides the tourist shops and a few buses in the distance ready to shuttle people to the mountaintop resorts, but I just walked around for a bit and quickly headed into one of the cafes for something warm. I enjoyed another cup of sahlep before the descent.
Emir Sultan Mosque & Mausoleum
Coming up it was daylight but by the time the cable car left the station it was dark. At least I was able to enjoy a daytime and nighttime view of the city, which was a special treat. It had been very cold at the top but I was still quite cold when we reached the city level. It had been another successful day in that I finished seeing what I wanted to see and it was good enough for me to call it a day. I didn't intend to stay so many days in Bursa but I was enjoying the more relaxed pace of this portion of my travels so there are no regrets.
View of Bursa from the teleferik (cable car)